In case you’ve been living in cave for the last two weeks and have missed the myriad of Tweets, blog posts and media articles, let me get you caught up to speed. On March 8, MSNBC commentator, Rachel Maddow, blasted public relations giant, Burson-Marsteller, referring to it as an “evil” company. Ouch.
The segment discussed a decision by AIG, an insurance and financial services company, to add additional public relations services to mend its bruised reputation. The company is 80% owned by the public after 4 bailouts, and the point of Maddow’s segment was to convey the message that the public shouldn’t be paying for AIG to “shine up” its image to the public. However, it seems she focused more on taking aim on Burson-Marsteller than discussing AIG. She rattled off client after client to represent Burson-Marsteller as an unethical company, referencing among others, the firm’s work with the Bhopal chemical disaster, Philip Morris and even the Saudi Arabian government after the September 11th tragedies. ““When evil needs public relations, evil has Burson-Marsteller on speed dial,” Maddow said.
Yep, it was a pretty rough night for Burson-Marsteller, to say the least. An obvious PR nightmare. It’s a good thing they are already experts on public relations and already know exactly what to do. Or do they?
One of the first lessons we are taught is crisis communications – an area with which Burson-Marsteller is clearly familiar – is that when crisis erupts, organizations need to face the problem head on with transparency and responsiveness. The worst thing a company can do is say nothing at all. Or that’s at least what we advise our clients.
Blogger’s have been discussing the issue since the airing, including Valley PR’s advice about how PR firms should try to balance companies that are regarded highly in terms of ethics, with companies in need of crisis communications. Public Relations College Students also addressed the issue, attacking the event from the viewpoint of the constant clash between journalists and public relations professionals.
You will find the episode debated and alluded to on countless blogs. Just not on Burson-Marsteller’s. All three blogs that Burson-Marsteller maintains on its Web site fail to address Rachel Maddow’s blow. In fact, you will be hard pressed to find formal, written responses coming from Burson-Marsteller, with the exception of a leaked internal memo.
In my opinion, Burson-Marsteller should have addressed the issue immediately to minimize the damage. Sometimes, public relations firms have to remember to take their own advice.
But maybe I’m overreacting. What do you think? Is this really a PR nightmare, or simply one commentator’s opinion that is soon to be forgotten? What do you think Burson-Marsteller should have done/ should do?