On a segment discussing AIG's PR representation, Maddow, host of the eponymous left-leaning MSNBC news show, called Burson the “PR firm from hell.” In the episode, Maddow expressed disbelief that AIG is using any PR firms in light of its public funding, but the newscaster spent a large portion of the segment painting Burson and its client roster in a negative manner. At one point, Maddow said, “When evil needs public relations, evil has Burson-Marsteller on speed dial.”
In an internal memo to employees, Penn said the company is “proud to work for AIG - work that has nothing to do with ‘burnishing their image' but is all about helping this company handle the massive volume of media, government and employee interest in their situation.”
He also took issue with the show's characterization of Burson's client roster.
“Of every potential client mentioned, we only work for one -- Phillip Morris (now Altria in the U.S.) and our work for them is largely to help with legislatively mandated smoking cessation programs; we do not work on the marketing of cigarettes at all,” he wrote.
PRWeek obtained Penn's note from a source within the firm, but the agency has declined to comment. The full memo is below:
As many of you are aware, especially in the US, a segment appeared on cable television last night that attacked Burson-Marsteller and the work that we do. The jumping off point for this commentator was our work for AIG – a company that has certainly been in the news a lot lately. We are proud to work for AIG – work that has nothing to do with “burnishing their image” but is all about helping this company handle the massive volume of media, government and employee interest in their situation. It is ironic to me that someone in the media is complaining about attempts by AIG to make sure they have the resources to respond and interact with the media (and other key audiences). It is the very fact that AIG realizes it has a responsibility, as a recipient of government money, to be as accessible and open as possible in its dealing with external audiences that led them to utilize our media relations services along with that of several other public relations and communications agencies.
The cable host also reeled off a list of other purported Burson-Marsteller clients of which she was critical. Of every potential client mentioned, we only work for one -- Phillip Morris (now Altria in the U.S.) and our work for them is largely to help with legislatively mandated smoking cessation programs; we do not work on the marketing of cigarettes at all. Her commentary also significantly mischaracterized the nature of the firm's past – for example, we never took a dime from Blackwater and the purpose of our work for Aqua Dot was to help remove a dangerous product off the shelves as quickly as possible. Part of the firm's heritage has been to stand for transparency and fast action when it comes to product safety issues, dating to the recommendations in the Tylenol case.
Just like lawyers and management consultants, PR firms are often called in to help when companies face difficult problems. Our role is crucial to companies operating in open and transparent business and media environments. We are and should be proud of the work we do. As you all know from your daily work for clients - and as Harold Burson has established in our corporate values for the past 50 years - we always counsel our clients to be open and honest. And never forget that over the last 20 years, this firm has and continues to work for some of the best known companies and brands that have improved peoples' lives and for some of the biggest charitable and non-profit institutions around the world. It is a track record for which we can be proud.
While we can't spend our time responding to every attack that comes our way over the internet or cable television, I do think it is important that I reach out to each of you to let you know that we have a good story to tell about the work we do. I know you see it every day in the efforts you put forth for our many clients worldwide. This is a great company that has earned a decades-long reputation for being a leader in our industry and you all are hard-working professionals meeting the highest of standards. I know you share my pride in our work, our clients and our people.