Archive for March, 2009

AIG Jumps into Fray with Its Side of the Story

Watching the volcanic outrage over the AIG bonus money playing out in the media I wondered how the company would respond.

Many companies make the mistake of ducking for cover thinking they can wait out the storm.

While AIG is hardly the poster child for business communications, it made the right move with an op-ed from the CEO Edward Liddy in today’s Washington Post.

He frames the op-ed with classic storytelling; i.e., the disaster, hero to the rescue, corrective actions and finally the promise that everyone in Gotham City will eventually live happily after.

Let’s take a closer look.

The power of empathy championed by Oprah and her ilk is not lost on Mr. Liddy. His piece kicks off:

The government rescue of American International Group (AIG) and other financial firms has produced a palpable wave of anger on the part of Americans and a rising public demand for accountability from corporate and government leaders. The anger is understandable, and I share it.

Is he saying that he shares our anger or he shares an understanding that we’re angry? I’m not sure. Still, right move to jump on the anger bandwagon.

Next comes the mea cupa:

Mistakes were made at AIG, and on a scale that few could have imagined possible. The most egregious of those began in 1987, when the company strayed from its core insurance competencies …

Good word “egregious.” 

With the stage setting in place, our hero arrives on the scene. Here, Liddy makes it very clear that those “egregious” acts did not happen on his watch since “I answered the call for help and joined AIG in September 2008 …”

How has Liddy changed the behavior at AIG?

He makes a case with hard numbers that prudent fiscal management has been established highlighting that the top 47 execs made 56 percent less in 2008 than 2007. The sparseness in his language — “My annual salary is $1. My only stake is my reputation” — closes this section with a bit of drama.

In other words, other execs might have pigged out at the trough, but that’s not me. In fact, my financial stake is a single buck, and again, that bad stuff happened before I took the reins.

Finally, we get to the core issue.

Liddy refuses to use the B word, acknowledging that AIG made a “set of retention payments to employees based on a compensation system that prior management put in place.”

This is the one segment where I take issue with word choice. Everyone knows about the bonuses. Call them bonuses.

As we come down the home stretch, good conversational language follows that unfortunately derails at the critical junction:

Make no mistake, had I been chief executive at the time, I would never have approved the retention contracts that were put in place more than a year ago. It was distasteful to have to make these payments. But we concluded that the risks to the company and therefore the financial system and the economy, were unacceptable.

What does that last sentence mean? He was doing so well up to this point.

The piece closes with the happily-ever-after message.

I give AIG credit for recognizing the value of making its voice heard even in a hostile environment.

The op-ed is well crafted with elements of storytelling.

But the question on everyone’s mind still isn’t answered.

What are you going to do about all that bonus dough paid out?


Tying Your Story to a High-profile Topic — Even “Slumdog Millionaire” — Can Go Too Far

Leveraging a high-profile topic can open the door to your own story.

We’ve used this technique in our own communications.

When Sequoia Capital rolled out its “R.I.P Good Times” pitch that caused considerable hoopla in the world of venture capital, we countered with a guest blog on VentureBeat called “R.I.P. The Controlled Message.”

But there are times when this approach can go too far.

Consider an Israeli defense firm called Rafael as Exhibit A.

Jumping on the “Slumdog Millionaire” bandwagen, the company has produced a Bollywood video to tell its story.

I’m all for embracing social media in all forms, but not with lyrics like:

I need to feel safe and sheltered

Security and protection

Commitment and perfection

Defense and dedication

It’s safe to say this little ditty wasn’t written in Nashville (makes Nirvana lyrics look clever).

I hope this is nothing more than tasteless parody.

But I suspect it shows how storytelling and social media can go horribly wrong with the wrong person at the controls. 


Conversing Like a Real Human Being

There’s something about the shadow of business that causes people to actually strive for a rigid and vanilla tone in their communications.

That’s why the following automated note from Twitter (forgot my password) caught my attention:

Hey there.

Can’t remember your password, huh?

It happens to the best of us.

Please open this link in your browser…

The mere act of being conversational actually causes a basic note on resetting my password to stand out.

Because “corporate speak” has become the de fault for this type of communications.

Dick Costolo wrote a wonderful post over a year ago called “Have a Company Voice.” The following words absolutely nail the issue:

People like it when companies have personalities. It makes us feel like there are actual people on the other side of the communication. It’s fun to be the customer of a company with a personality. This seems totally obvious, and yet you too rarely see companies with distinct personalities really grab your attention in the marketplace. Why is this? It’s actually hard to remove personality and character from communications. So, instead of saying that companies don’t take the time to have personalities, it’s probably more accurate to state that companies don’t allow themselves to show their personalities.

Simply communicating with a conversational tone goes a long way toward allowing a personality to surface.


Here’s a Contrarian Story You Don’t See Everyday

The customer is king in an economic downturn … except at American Express.

AmEx has decided to prune its customers that fit under the bad-guy category with a unique offer.

Remember in the good old days when the Russians were still a player and your local bank gave you a blender when you opened a savings account. AmEx is turning this paradigm inside out, telling selected customers that if they’ll square away their balances and close their accounts they’ll qualify for a $300 prepaid gift card.

In short, AMEX is paying folks to stop being customers.

One gets the feeling that AmEx isn’t exactly proud of this brainstorm — no news release or other forms of proactive mass communications — and for good reason. It turns out that collecting the 300 bones in exchange for shutting down the account results is your credit score taking a hit.

While this hasn’t exactly triggered an uproar in the blogosphere I wonder if there’s some form of crowdsourcing at work.

If you click the entry point for the AMEX please-leave-us epiphany here you’ll see that the promotion has already expired.




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