Larissa Alghisi Rubner

About Larissa Alghisi Rubner

Larissa Alghisi Rubner is Group Head of Communications for a leading financial services firm. An experienced communications executive, she started her career in management consulting. She is based in Zurich, Switzerland.

AIG CEO’s Comment Goes (Deep) South

 AIG CEOs Comment Goes (Deep) South

THE PR VERDICT: “F” (Full Fiasco) for AIG’s Robert Benmosche.

Five years ago, when AIG was rescued by the US government, the insurer became the poster child for everything that had gone wrong in the financial services industry – inflated balance sheets, insufficient controls, and corruptive bonuses. The company then embarked on the steep path to restore its financial health and reputation. Led by Robert Benmosche, appointed CEO in 2009, AIG underwent a drastic turnaround, with uncompromising cuts to its balance sheet and work force. As a result, the US government was able to exit its investment with a profit of $22.7 billion and, in August this year, the company announced higher profits as well as its first dividend payment and share buy-back since 2008.

All’s well that ends well? Not quite. Benmosche managed to turn his interview with The Wall Street Journal from a PR opportunity to a disaster by comparing the 2009 outrage over AIG bonuses to racism in the Deep South. The uproar, he said, “was intended to stir public anger, to get everybody out there with the pitchforks and their hangman nooses, and all that – sort of like what we did in the Deep South…and I think it was just as bad and just as wrong.”

AIG’s staff undoubtedly worked hard; without them, the government bailout would have ended in tears for shareholders and tax payers alike. Nevertheless, the public cannot be expected to offer sympathy or gratitude. If Benmosche wanted to make employees feel better, he achieved the opposite. After a long crisis, all they wanted was to get on with their jobs, without battling constant controversy around their employer. Hard luck.

THE PR VERDICT: “F” (Full Fiasco) for AIG’s Robert Benmosche.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Some fights can never be won. Executive interviews have some absolute “don’ts.” The most important is to never – ever! – compare anything that happened in an industry or in a company to a historic event rife with human suffering. The comparison will always sound deluded and bring out debate that widens the issue not narrows it. Compensation is also better left untouched, especially if it has already been under fire in the past. Executive pay was a PR battle AIG lost years ago. When coming back from a crisis, remember no headline is always preferable over a bad one.

Galliano Fashions a PR Comeback

 Galliano Fashions a PR Comeback

THE PR VERDICT: “A” (PR Perfect) for John Galliano.

Is John Galliano’s exile from the fashion world over? The designer has finally broken his silence, following his spectacular fall from grace in 2011 after making anti-Semitic rants in Paris. One episode in particular was videotaped, prompting his immediate firing from Dior and later conviction by a French court.

In his first interview since the scandal, Galliano opens up to a very sympathetic Vanity Fair.  His story has the making of an epic novel – the “un-idyllic” childhood in a multi-cultural but rough London neighborhood, where he was bullied for his homosexuality; his ascent into the world of high fashion; and the demons unlocked in fashion’s world of high pressure and unhealthy pampering. En plus, the unclear provenance of the incriminating video, fed to the media before Galliano’s arrest, provides just a hint of conspiracy. Vanity Fair spares no effort to exonerate, consulting and quoting experts to make the case that, when he hissed those spiteful things to people, Galliano just couldn’t help himself: Alcohol and drugs had simply made him insane.

Center stage in the article is Galliano’s contrition. Friends and other supporting sources, such as Jewish leaders he met through an executive of Vanity Fair’s publisher Condé Nast, vouch for the same. He studied the Holocaust, attended service at a synagogue, and is finally making tentative steps back into his profession, supported by fashion royalties such as Oscar de la Renta and Anna Wintour. Shalom, John, welcome back!

THE PR VERDICT: “A” (PR Perfect) for John Galliano. With a little help from influential friends, a comeback is always possible.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: For perfect rebound PR, timing is everything. Prepare the line-up of your supporters carefully, and make sure potential antagonists remain silent; one of the key stakeholders in this saga, Galliano’s former employer LVMH, declined to comment due to ongoing litigation about Galliano’s compensation. (The article hints at a soon-to-be-expected “human-to-human” apology from Galliano to his former bosses.) The glitterati love a tormented, artistic soul, and once confession and amends have been made, one may be pardoned and permitted to go back to work. Our PR advice? Post-comeback, work in silence.

 

Prince Causes King-Sized PR Problem

 Prince Causes King Sized PR Problem

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for Prince Alwaleed.

What does Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal have in common with Paris Hilton, a Kardashian, or an insecure teenage girl? While the 58-year-old male may not need to be constantly reassured about being loved or looking pretty, he does want the world to acknowledge that he really, really is the richest of them all.

The amusing spat between Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal and Forbes Magazine about his rank as 26th on their World’s Billionaires list has been a source of Schadenfreude for those who didn’t make the ranks. One day before the publication, the office of Prince Alwaleed issued a petulant statement saying he would “sever ties” with the Forbes billionaires list for a series of allegations made by the magazine. Forbes responded with a story describing in detail the process of estimating the Prince’s wealth and the efforts undertaken by himself and his entourage to influence the ranking – including the revelation that the Prince sits on a throne when travelling in his private jet.

The Prince’s efforts to secure his position in the list included making pleading calls with the editor and even offering access to his private banker in Switzerland, all to no avail. Instead, the Prince has inadvertently encouraged increased scrutiny over bigger issues, including the integrity of the Saudi financial center and allegations of stock price manipulation in the Kingdom.

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for Prince Alwaleed. How do you fix a PR problem you started yourself?

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Keep business impersonal. Being the PR for Prince Alwaleed presumably involves learning to count to ten while the man on the throne shoots at the press. The terse statement concerning Forbes has ignited a series of unforeseen consequences, including press scrutiny into the transparency of his listed vehicle, Kingdom Holding, and regulation of the Saudi stock market. Rather than firing off angry press statements in response to a magazine’s fact-checking questions, stay quiet, elusive, and…well, royal. Silence is golden – even if it is on a throne in a private jet.

To read the Forbes story click here:

 

Italy’s Five Star Movement Wins; Now What?

 Italys Five Star Movement Wins; Now What?

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for Italy’s Beppe Grillo.

What happens when the anti-establishment becomes part of the establishment? That’s the question Italians are asking themselves as an overwhelming 25 percent voted for the grassroots Five Star Movement (M5S) last weekend. A party of “political outsiders,” its elected parliamentary representatives define themselves by everything typical parliamentarians are not – at least, not in Italy. Namely? Young and honest.

In only three years, M5S has become a political steamroller. Without deep financial pockets, momentum has come from tireless rants and the pungent humor of the party’s leader Beppe Grillo. A former comedian, he amassed political capital with his unmatched rhetoric, winning the hearts and minds of disgruntled Italians who continue to despair at their deeply dysfunctional political system. His main achievement seems to be giving ordinary Italians a chance to vent their frustration and rage peacefully.

Now, poor Beppe is caught in a classic communications dilemma. Remaining true to brand means categorically refusing alliances with any established political force and continuing to win the crowds by criticizing established politicians and cracking jokes. The “outsider approach” might win votes, but it won’t help the country out of a dire economic crisis. With the “Grillo” brand being the anthesisis of sober statesmanship, it might be time for his M5S to think about a rebrand for the party and its leader.

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for Beppe Grillo. A different style (and a different spokesperson) may be what is needed.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Brand evolution changes with circumstances. Grillo’s stated goal was to give Italian citizens the power to change their own country, but everyone understands this is a long haul – and an unpopular journey. While Grillo did not run for office himself, his M5S has won a seat at the table. With doubts persisting about the party’s ability to effect any real change, the best way to reassure their supporters is to take on the mantle of serious politicians promising to get things done. Coming across as rebels, comics, victims, or dreamers won’t cut it any longer, but speaking in a different tone and style will. Less jokes and rage and more substance will transition the party (and its leader) into the power role they have been handed. Beppe Grillo, as the leader and spokesperson, might want to start the change from the top.

 

David Cameron’s Great Expectations

 David Camerons Great Expectations

The PR Verdict: “D” (PR Problematic) for British Prime Minister David Cameron.

Last week, British Prime Minister David Cameron delivered a speech promising to hold a referendum on Britain’s future in the EU by 2017. By then, he said, his government would be able to work with its European partners on reforms towards his vision of a better EU – in his words, more flexible, more adaptable, more open. At that point, he proposed, Brits should decide to stay in or get out.

The speech itself was direct, upfront, thoughtful, and inclusive.  It was passionate where appropriate, describing the UK approach as “practical rather than emotional.” There were concessions for every interest group: sufficient criticism to please at home, but nothing so deeply offensive as to justify open outrage by powerful partners abroad. No obvious blunders, no mistakes; just smart speechwriting at its best.

Although debatable that the “EU issue” was  top-of-mind for British people, they will now rightly expect their government to get it resolved. Was Cameron’s tactic to appease the conservative UK press and the euro-sceptics in his own party? If so, did it buy him time to focus on more important issues, or has he seriously jeopardized his political future? From a communications perspective, he opened up not one but many Pandora’s boxes and inspired a myriad of expectations. Was this the intention?

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for David Cameron. Be wary of creating expectations that you may not want to meet.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Only promise what you can deliver. Communicating always involves creating and managing expectations, and in complex situations, different stakeholders’ expectations inevitably diverge. Even if the public pressure is almost unbearable (and it seems it wasn’t in this case) controversy is almost never resolved by creating new expectations. When you can’t control expecations and aren’t certain of the outcome, then it’s usually the most vocal who demand their stance be taken. This is one speech Cameron may come to regret.

 

 

 

Guest Column: A Wulff at Google’s Door

BettinaWulf2 150x150 Guest Column: A Wulff at Googles Door

The PR Verdict: “B” (Good Show) for Bettina Wulff.

Bettina Wulff may not be a name known to most Americans, but her claim to fame is that she was the former First Lady of Germany. Her husband, the former German President, Christian Wulff, resigned in early 2012 amidst a scandal involving personal favors from wealthy friends. The couple’s joint demise was particularly hard after the intense media honeymoon they initially enjoyed. The magazines had loved Bettina.

But resignation did not result in obscurity. Gossip recently reached new heights, or lows: prior to her high-profile marriage, Mrs. Wulff is alleged to have been an escort. The rumors spread like wildfire on the Internet – with the alarming result for Frau Wulff that if you typed her name into Google, the search engine’s auto complete function suggested “Bettina Wulff escort.” Google’s helpful service was now a slanderous PR issue.

Mrs. Wulff, formerly in PR, launched an aggressive campaign to clear her name. In September, she published a memoir rebutting speculation about her past. Next, she followed up with a lawsuit against Google Germany, requesting the deletion of 3,000 search results and the suppression of its derogatory auto complete results. Critics said this was a publicity stunt to sell her book, another sign of her craving for media attention – and a counterproductive one that kept the rumor alive. Was it better for Frau Wulff to take her lumps or fight the fight?

The PR Verdict: “B” (Good Show) for Bettina Wulff. Who says what goes online stays there forever?

The PR Takeaway: To fight the rumor, change the conversation. In spite of endless gossip about her past, Bettina has turned the attention of media experts to another prominent player: Google and the debate about the monopolist’s responsibility for content. The court has temporarily ordered Google to eliminate eight search results. While this has not fully restored public sympathy for Bettina Wulff, it diverted the national conversation from “Was she really?” to a different question about Google and its content polices. Also, Bettina Wulff has changed her online history. Even for a First Lady, that’s something.

Guest Column: Angelina Jolie to Syria’s Rescue

Angelinajolie1 150x150 Guest Column: Angelina Jolie to Syrias Rescue

PR Verdict: “C” (Distinctly OK) for UNHCR and its association with Angelina.

Tired of reading about celebrities in US Weekly or People? Then turn to the Financial Times. The FT just ran an op-ed from Angelina Jolie, special envoy to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), co authored by António Guterres, the UNHCR High Commissioner and former Prime Minister of Portugal. Both made a plea to support Syrian refugees and the latest UN appeal drive.

This latest FT column follows Jolie’s televised visits to Syrian refugee camps, guaranteeing coverage where the plight of the refugees might not have ordinarily rated a mention. During the visits, Jolie appeared shaken and emotional; critics might say that’s no big stretch for an actress, but following up her well-publicized visits with the op-ed route was wise. No charity glamour, just simple facts and arguments.

The column summarized the situation clearly. Wearing her UN hat, Jolie got right to the point: This appeal is not just about helping refugees, but making sure help is on a sustainable footing. The FT ran a photo of the glamorous special envoy on its front page. Her co-author had to be content with a byline; presumably he doesn’t sell newspapers in quite the same way.

THE PR VERDICT: “C” (Distinctly OK) for UNHCR. Celebrity coverage is the stepping-stone for more serious follow up, but is Angelina Jolie the right celebrity?

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Choose your celebrity wisely. By pairing up with Jolie, the UNHCR got its cause more attention than it might have otherwise. But the nagging issue with Jolie is that it’s never really clear if she is smart and cool, or a wanna-be humanitarian who, in her personal life, is a bit of a loon. She has still not been able to shake off her “crazy” image, which includes an endless array of children and tattoos. (Have we forgotten the vial of Billy Bob’s blood she wore as a necklace?) Bottom line, her sincerity isn’t in doubt, but does she have the gravitas to take this issue any further?

To read Angelina Jolie’s and António Guterres’s op-ed column, click here.

What’s your opinion of the UNHCR’s choice of Angelina Jolie as representative? Give us your PR Verdict!