Wanna Get Away? October PR History

When the going gets tough, the tough get going – on a taxpayer-subsidized vacation. And that’s exactly what the executives at insurance giant AIG did in September 2008, when they flew out for a relaxing vacation at the swanky St. Regis hotel in southern California. And boy, did they need it: Just six days earlier, AIG had received an $85 billion government bailout. Apparently they converted it into traveler’s checks.

To their credit, the AIG execs made the most of their trip, spending a whopping $440,000. The tab included $10,000 in bar bills, $1,400 in salon expenses and $23,000 at the spa, where they racked up thousands of frequent-rubber miles.

AIG’s Most Excellent Vacation hit the media in early October and was a PR disaster. The New York Daily News may have summed it up best with their headline: “AIG big shots get $500G vacations on taxpayers’ dime.” And when it was reported that rooms at the St. Regis ran up to $1,200 a night, one Congressman pointedly remarked, “That’s more than some of my constituents pay on a mortgage payment on homes they’re now losing.”

To their defense, AIG had planned the trip before the bailout. They also tipped generously, spending another $3,000 of (taxpayer) money. And whenever possible, they used a Groupon.

But give AIG credit for being consistent. Just three months before the bailout, they fired the CEO — and gave him a $15 million parachute. And in 2014, another AIG CEO sued the government, complaining that the bailout was not generous enough. Meanwhile, several other executives are still hoping for a lucrative movie deal offer from Oliver Stone.

All of which should help PR pros remember: You never want to have bad optics. But if you do, at least make sure your room has a nice view.

Join us for our GFW PRSA half-day workshop on Wednesday, October 10, at Colonial Country Club!

Improve your pitching success rate and enhance your PR writing with Michael Smart’s PR tips. Learn specific, actionable strategies you can apply immediately to re-charge your media outreach and hone your PR skills at PRSA’s half-day workshop on Wednesday, October 10. The luncheon following the workshop will focus on reaching influencers and journalists in the new media relations landscape.

An independent communications trainer, Smart is regularly among the highest-rated speakers at the industry’s largest conferences. A former newspaper journalist, Michael has won national and regional awards for news release and feature writing.

Schedule:

  • 7:15 a.m. – Master Breakfast
  • 8 a.m. – Seminar Registration/Networking
  • 8:30 – 11:30 a.m. – SMARTer PR Workshop
  • 11:30 a.m. – noon – Luncheon Registration/Networking
  • Noon – 1 p.m. – Luncheon Program

Location:

Colonial Country Club 

Register here.

How a Photo-Op Tanked a Campaign

It was skullduggery: You can’t always tell that a PR effort is headed in the wrong direction, but sometimes you can. And that’s what happened on September 13, 1988, when Democratic Presidential candidate Michael Dukakis visited General Dynamics.

Dukakis had a double-digit lead in the polls, but his opponent, George Bush, had gained traction criticizing his positions on defense. In an effort to reinforce his flank, the Dukakis campaign decided to have their man visit a defense contractor and be photographed riding around in a tank. That would have been fine, but then the candidate was told that he would have to wear a helmet during the ride. And that’s when the electoral wheels started coming off.

Dukakis stands only 5’ 8” tall, and probably three feet of that is his head. So when the candidate put on the helmet, it was not the best look. How bad was it? The reporters on hand were seen laughing out loud; by one account, Sam Donaldson was literally doubled over. The Bush team was equally amused; they thought Dukakis looked like Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman, and had a great time saying to each other “Tank you very much.” You can see the infamous shot for yourself here.

To this day, members of the Dukakis campaign disagree on exactly where things went wrong. But they all agree it was a PR disaster, and rightly so: By the next week, one poll found Dukakis’s support had dipped 25 percent. To this day, campaigns remain vigilant about preventing “Dukakis in the tank” moments. If only it were that easy, right?

All of which should help us remember: While it’s always good to put on your thinking cap, first make sure it fits.

This Month in PR History

By: Jeff Rodriguez, GFW PRSA Historian

August 1968: There is no sure-fire way to win a Presidential election. But there is a pretty reliable method for losing one, and it was clearly demonstrated 50 years ago this month when Democrats gathered in Chicago to nominate their Presidential candidate. Conventions are supposed to help bring the party together, but this one was a political — and PR — disaster.

To be fair, 1968 was a tough year for everyone. MLK and Robert Kennedy both had been assassinated, and the Vietnam War was tearing apart both the country and the Democrats. Many delegates arrived in Chicago angry at the party, and they were joined by an “army of protesters” outside. Nervous city officials responded by surrounding the convention hall with steel fence and barbed wire, and the main doors were bulletproofed. As CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite said, the hall resembled a police state.

Most people have heard about the “riot” instigated by the Chicago Police; on August 28, tempers flared and the cops began clubbing protestors, journalists, even passers-by — “unrestrained and indiscriminate police violence,” as an investigation later reported. The media — those still standing — covered much of it. The New York Times called it a “pitched battle,” Newsweek called it “The Battle of Chicago” and The Washington Post called it “an atmosphere of hatred.”

But for Democrats, the scene inside the hall was just as significant. Angry delegates booed and yelled at each other and at least one delegate, with cameras rolling, was forcibly removed by security officers. Then when NBC’s Dan Rather attempted to interview the delegate, he was grabbed and pushed down, bringing a new definition to the idea of “on the ground reporting.” And when a Senator spoke out against the police violence, Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley was seen on camera yelling something he later claimed was “You faker.”

There is disagreement about how much long-term damage the convention did to the Democrats, but here are two telling stats. First, in 1964, LBJ won 61 percent of the vote; four years later, Hubert Humphrey got less than 43 percent. Second, while Democrats had won eight of the 12 previous elections, they lost seven of the next 12. Probably not the best metrics.

No doubt the Democrats who gathered in Chicago that summer were hoping for some “in-conventional” thinking, but the riots and inner conflict were a bit more than they had bargained for. And as every PR pro knows, if you want to beat an adversary, the first step is to not beat on each other.

When in Nigeria…

As part of her Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowship, FWPRSA’s advocacy chair, Amiso George, had the opportunity to give a workshop on “Understanding How Public Relations Can Enhance the Work of HR Managers,” to a variety of companies in Lagos, Nigeria! Thanks for representing FWPRSA all the way from Nigeria, Amiso!