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.