AIG blunders with lawsuit flirtation

The Onion hit the nail on the head with its January 9 headline, "AIG nearly blows all the goodwill built up by Wall Street in recent years."

The Onion hit the nail on the head with its January 9 headline, “AIG nearly blows all the goodwill built up by Wall Street in recent years.” In reality, much of the financial sector, and especially rescued insurance giant AIG, has little to no cachet left with US consumers – and what it had, it nearly squandered.

Early last month, AIG considered joining a lawsuit filed by its former CEO over the terms of its 2008 bailout by the federal government. The process was interpreted in the press and by thousands of consumers on Twitter as AIG saying, “Thanks for saving our business, but you should have done it on our terms.” Wisely, AIG eventually decided not to join the suit.

PR Play rating:

1. Clueless
2. Ill-advised
3. On the right track
4. Savvy
5. Ingenious

To make matters worse, the stories about AIG considering a suit emerged just after the company launched its Thank You America ad campaign, which touts the firm's work helping to rebuild tornado-stricken Joplin, MO, and East Coast cities affected by Hurricane Sandy. The ad ends with soaring shots of the still under construction One World Trade Center tower in Lower Manhattan, symbolizing a true comeback story if there ever was one.

That passive-aggressive combination was skewered online by consumers, editorial cartoonists, and comedians. For instance, comedian Andy Borowitz drafted a copy of a letter from AIG to taxpayers asking them for bailout money to cover the cost of the suit. On a more serious note, the move also ensured that the company will be associated with government bailouts for some time to come.

As communications consultant Ron Bonjean told Politico, the suit “basically took the millions of dollars [AIG] put toward advertising thanking the American people for bailing them out and threw it in the trash.”

AIG and its peers in the financial sector can't afford to waste any more of the public's patience. The 2012 edition of the Edelman Trust Barometer found that fewer than half of consumers say they trust financial institutions, a number that has increased slightly since 2011. AIG's two steps forward, one step back approach shows how far many financial firms still need to go.

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