But AIG isn't the first to run afoul when taking taxpayer money. At a House Financial Services Committee hearing, Rep. Paul Kanjorski (D-PA) noted Northern Trust Corporation's lavish spending on a now-notorious PGA golf tournament.
“When you took taxpayer money, you moved into a fishbowl,” he said. “Everyone is rightly watching your every move from every side.”
Any company involved in the stimulus could face similar scrutiny. But here's how beneficiaries can avoid negative effects of the fishbowl.
- Bailout and stimulus funds are to help taxpayers – not institutions. A recent New York Times/CBS News poll noted high support for President Obama's handling of the crisis, but the majority felt the bailout would benefit bankers over Americans. Stimulus recipients who show they're improving the lives of citizens will avoid scrutiny by Congress, regulators, and the media.
- Allies matter. Businesses won't find many cheerleaders in the new administration, so stimulus recipients must create alliances to help validate federal spending decisions. Businesses and others who build effective, diverse coalitions of support for their role in making the stimulus work for taxpayers will emerge from the recession with stronger reputations.
- Know your audiences and keep them informed. Stimulus recipients need to understand all of the audiences involved in regulatory oversight, including President Obama's appointed stimulus watchdog, Interior Department Inspector General Earl Devaney; state and municipal government leaders; interest and advocacy groups; and the media.
Successful recipients will be those who proactively educate these audiences about the results they generate with precious taxpayer dollars. Education Secretary Arne Duncan echoed the importance of this: “If states play games with these funds, the second round of stabilization funds could be in jeopardy and they could eliminate their state from competitive grant money.”
- Shovel-ready? That better be true! According to recovery.gov, more than $111 billion will be available for infrastructure and science alone. But this administration intends to raise the bar on the integrity of federal procurement, and contractors will face increased accountability and transparency rules. Those doing business with government agencies using stimulus money should report proactively on key project milestones, the integrity of their financial controls and other responsibility measures.
- Share your story proactively. If you're developing a strategy for a business or an industry that's in the fishbowl, create a plan that will educate multiple audiences. Communicate the value of your program in terms taxpayers will understand. Participants cannot depend on the federal government to defend a program, demonstrate accountability, or prove value – they must do it.
Those who succeed in proving their value and conveying taxpayer benefits of their involvement in the federal stimulus will build stronger reputations and brands. Those who fail, welcome to the fishbowl.
Scott Widmeyer is chairman and CEO of Widmeyer Communications. He can be reached at email@example.com