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Rachel Maddow Slices & Dices :: Burson-Marsteller

Under the title, “AIG’s Image Problem,” MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow crafts a rant against AIG and Burson-Marsteller.

In her 3:44 minute rant, Maddow calls Burson-Marsteller the PR agency “from Hell.”

This is a slice & dice unlike any I’ve seen before. Yes, TV talking heads have ranted against PR and firms for eons.

I’m not here to defend or destroy either Burson-Marsteller or Maddow. I do think this particular rant is a good example of creating a selective argument.

Maddow, in her rant, notes that Burson-Marsteller was involved in representing corporations in some of the most high profile crisis events in recent history. From Bhopal to Three Mile Island … date rape drug on toys and faulty breast, and more, Maddow notes that B-M was one of the firms involved in post-event PR. She neglects to note that there were likely many PR agencies involved in those cases. She implies that B-M was the only firm.

Further, Maddow states, “When Evil needs public relations. Evil has Burson-Marsteller on speed dial.” She then points out that Mark Penn, Hillary Clinton’s pollster and chief strategist, is the CEO of Burson-Marsteller.

Almost all of the B-M clients/cases Madow refers to are those that we teach as case studies to learn the pros and cons of both corporation practice and PR practice. To me, this was interesting to watch.

My questions? Was Maddow fair or has she begun to embrace, on occasion, the MSNBC/CNBC “Howard Beale” mentality of commentary? Your thoughts in comments, please.

Here’s the video and an update. Maddow replies to a leaked internal memo by Mark Penn offering a rebuttal to Maddow’s first commentary.

Part I Part II


  1. Whew! That’s quite a laundry list of evil that has B-M on speed dial. 🙂

    It’s interesting that the focus of Rachel’s rant is that these PR firms are “shining up AIG’s image.” Of course, I don’t know what the contracts are with these firms, but I’m guessing that they are tasked with duties that likely to do with communications, reporting and providing accurate, timely information to AIG’s rapidly expanding list of stakeholders (i.e, the government and taxpayers).

    Sure, some of the work must be reputation management (which is important), but hopefully AIG’s list of “PR representation” includes firms that are ethical and responsible and they’ll work to increase transparency and accountability.

    I suppose (again) it shows a shallow understanding of the breadth of work that PR firms do – we are more than just “image polishers.” But in the short term, B-M might need to do a spit shine on its own image.

  2. Rachel has a point of view…like MSNBC and CNBC, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I think she just points out the frustrations and anger that we, as a nation, have with this kind of activity and damage control. Honesty would be a nice thing to try and live towards–it won’t happen before we drive the whole planet into the dirt, but it’s a nice thought, nonetheless. As someone who has worked in the ‘Biz” for more than 25 years, I can pretty much vouch that there is nothing that a PR firm does that is honest, above board or honorable in any way. Still, in this mess we’ve created in the race to greed and destruction, I guess they are a necessary part of our world.

  3. Kelli, thanks. I agree with you. Further, you make a great point. Has Rachel seen the contract? Does she know what B-M has been hired to provide? Given the broad variety of services a large firm like Burson-Marsteller provides, who is to say that this contract is for reputation management.

    Further, this is what gets me about some people. Not all, just some. I’ll bet you a pretty penny that Rachel Madow’s program receives a lot of help from PR people along the way. Madow is not a journalist, she’s a commentator. Still, her program – as well as MSNBC & CNBC – benefit greatly from PR.

    The real problem is Madow & some others tend to use the universal “PR” tag to describe a practice they clearly do not understand. (Remember the CBS lawyer on the CBS Sunday Morning program?) Why don’t they take the time to do some research and speak with at least a tiny bit of knowledge.

    Using O’Dwyer’s list of the top 192 PR firms, we learn that a reported total of $129,9885,316 in revenues is generated by only 8,361 PR practitioners. (That’s, of course, provided these self-reported numbers are correct.)

    It is most often these 192 firms (actually, the top 20 or 30) that people associate with PR. The 192 or so are the ones that get mentioned and covered in such dust ups as Madow’s. Further, Madow, and some others, tend to show their cluelessness with regard to the scope of PR practice and the number of different types of PR practice going on in the US, let alone the world.

    Guess what? Those 8,361 large/medium/boutique agency practitioners represent a mere sliver of the overall PR practitioners in the US, alone. Oh, they rake in some pretty major dollars, but they are not – repeat NOT – the best representation of who and what PR people and PR practice are today. Anyone that would just take 20 or 30 minutes to do research would understand this. But, it rarely happens.

    A previous post of mine points out how there are easily 100,000 PA (public affairs) officers in the US, as they are required to comply with the 30,000+ public disclosure laws, among other things.

    Now, that pretty much assures that the large agency PR practitioner population is dwarfed by (many/most) all? the other types of PR practitioners in the US, alone. People just don’t take the time to research and think before they speak, sometimes. Madow’s rant is a perfect example.

    Still, Madow and some others feel they must use that broad brush. We know that if such a broad brush were used to malign them, especially in a medium where they can’t respond, they would be pretty ticked off.

    That brings me to you, Michael Jones. At first, I thought you were a Michael Jones I know that is a PR practitioner. Turns out, the “Biz” you refer to isn’t PR. It is the biz of being a “highly efficient makeup/hair team” in Hollywood. Since you did not provide a link, I just tracked your provided email address to that bio. You’re certainly not the Micheal Jones PR practitioner I was thinking you were. ;o)

    Um, Michael, your experiences with publicists may have been bad (given your comment), but I’m still not a fan of universal statements like “there is nothing that a PR firm does that is honest, above board or honorable in any way.” You are clueless, Michael.

    Why? Well, Michael … many reasons. First, as a “highly efficient makeup/hair team” I am sure you did great work, but what the heck does it have to do with PR? I mean really, how much exposure could you have had to the breadth and depth of PR practice … even only that which occurs in publicity filled Hollywood.

    You see, Michael, publicity is now (and has been for a long time) a diminishing part of the overall PR practice. Sure, it is a staple of some practices, but it is in no way the majority of the work being done in PR.

    I think what disturbed me the most about Madow’s rant was that I felt she was becoming one of the reasonably rational and fair talking heads. I like her. I like her program. My hope was, her high ratings – while being a rational voice – would encourage cable talk programs (we can’t call them news) to see that it actually can be done successfully, without going “Howard Beale” on all of us.

    But, maybe with the end of the political campaign seasons -and dropping ratings on cable talk shows, Madow is now being steered (or turning the wheel herself) toward these absurdly unfair rants.

    Come to think of it, what Madow did is exactly what she disdains … spin! She only told her opinion and didn’t look at the broader work of B-M and their many nonprofit / pro bono works …. or even evaluate whether or not their other work is indeed transparent and honest.

    Look, Michael and Rachel have a right to their opinions and comments. But, Madow is in a position to prove that sanity can rule the airwaves. She has let us all down in this one rant. Forget that it is about PR. Sure, it is a subject of importance to me and my students. I assure you, had I noticed this rant and seen it being likewise done to any other profession, I’d still be writing this post and this comment.

    Finally, we can all be in the room and say to clients, “Be honest. Fess up. Tell the truth and work out the problems.” That doesn’t mean they take the advice, even if they are paying us.

  4. Robert,

    I understand your disappointment with Madow and the urge to defend the PR industry. But as always, things are not all black or white.

    This situation reminds me of Heath’s definition of PR rhetorical excellence, modified from ancient philosopher Quintilian: “The good organization speaking well” (see Heath’s book Strategic Issues Management).

    PR can help an organization speak well, and PR can help an organization be good.

    The problem is, most organizations hire PR to help them speak well, not be(come) good.

    When you have an organization that has clearly engaged in problematic behavior, the speaking well part also becomes ethically questionable.

    I see this as the root of PR’s image problem. Too often, we are hired to speak well for organizations that are not entirely good.

    I can understand Madow’s point that AIG’s priority right now should be to be and do good, rather than speak well.

    The reason why many PR theorists insist that PR be a part of the management team is so they can advise a company not only on speaking well, but on being good. Unfortunately this doesn’t happen very often.

    Now, I don’t know if B-M advises their clients to be good AND speak well or only to speak well… but if it’s only the latter, I can see the problem.

  5. I appreciate that, Mihaela, and I agree.

    Maddow’s rant is just another in a long line. I allow it to set me off on rants on two particular pet peeves of mine. One is about the widespread misunderstanding of what PR actually encompasses. The other is how what we grew up believing to be ‘news’ has become advocacy/commentary by previously trusted news sources.

    Ultimately, I believe her entire rant was a setup for her to be able to zing Mark Penn, a person I think she doesn’t particularly like. This is yet another misuse and abuse of a protected pulpit.

    MSNBC and CNBC have, of late, become more interested in saving their collective butts by turning away from news. MSNBC has become the “anti-Fox” and CNBC is just trying to do a misdirection on the real story, they (once again) missed the real story – the impending financial crisis.

    Just me venting over here, Mihaela. ;o)

  6. Linda, it isn’t backwards to suggest that PR firms can practice selectivity. I have actually said no to more clients than I’ve said yes to, over over years. Individuals and agencies should, IMO, be picky about who they will represent. I’ve said no because I didn’t want to work with them and I’ve also said it because I knew I wasn’t the right fit for them.

    Yes, I know some firms (and practitioners/consultants) will take anything, even if they can’t produce for the client.

    Perhaps one of the best ways to look at this is from Andrew Cohen’s response, after being slapped down for his CBC Sunday Morning rant.

    This might as easily have been addressed to Maddow, “In an academic sense, your hyperbole is inaccurate and therefore, perhaps, unfair. There are certainly ethical PR folks out there. But, like lawyers and the Fourth Estate, there have been so many bad actors who for so long have abused the public’s trust, that the hyperbole pretty accurately represents the feelings of most in the public, and is sadly not that far from the truth. The PR industry needs to take some responsibility for this state of affairs (as do lawyers and the media) and work to restore the public’s faith.” (Source)

    You know, most often when I write about such a kerfuffle, the response I get is something akin to, “Robert, why do you rant so? This happens all the time. Those few bad apples … that’s the problem. Do you really think you can reduce the ignorance that abounds regarding ‘what’ PR really is and what it does?”

    My response is, at least I can try. We should speak out when these incidents happen. If not for ourselves, at least think of the students that are about to embark on their careers. They are trying to come in and clean up the messes we have allowed to occur (without significant outrage) for years. As a whole, we don’t do too well as stewards of best practice profession-wide. And, we don’t respond to those that, with great glee, ‘spin’ and then pretend to be journalists, lawyers or what have you.

  7. I hear the people who say positive things about PR firms and I know they are important in a good way, but I think the point Maddow made was valid:

    If your client list includes some serious scum of the earth, you don’t look good.

    And their CEO kept his job while being Clinton’s chief strategist? That doesn’t look good. Even Rove had to quit. Their CEO worse than Rove?

    Really? Really?

  8. Jain, if we solely looked at your comment, “If your client list includes some serious scum of the earth, you don’t look good,” and nothing else … then that would be true. However, what Maddow did was beyond that. B-M’s statement was that their subsidiary was working on M&A projects in the past. Maddow did not say what they are working on now. A guess would be, M&A activities. M&A is not the kind of work Maddow was seeking to tarnish the firm with in her commentary.

    There is such a thing as context. Maddow’s rant illustrated no grasp of such context.

    Your comments about, “And their CEO kept his job while being Clinton’s chief strategist? That doesn’t look good. Even Rove had to quit. Their CEO worse than Rove?” implies that Rove and Penn were similar (if not equal) in their standing while working on both campaigns/administrations (Clinton & Bush).

    They were not. Rove was a political operative for George Bush. That is how he came to fame and made his living. Not so, for Penn. You really are relating two completely different circumstances/situations for each of them (Rove & Penn). Again, context. Let’s keep it in context.

    Rove was solely a political animal. Burson-Marsteller’s practice has a very wide scope & depth:

    Public Affairs
    Corporate and Financial Communications
    Brand Marketing
    Media Relations
    Digital Media
    Issues & Crisis Group
    Grassroots Outreach
    Industry Specialties

    Penn is responsible for all those practices, as CEO. Also, what Maddow did not report … B-M is actually a subsidiary of WPP Group.

    Let’s get down to the real reason for Maddow’s rant. It wasn’t about B-M or AIG … it was one political commentator’s (Maddow) opinion of one political consultant (Penn) and it was all wrapped up in their own personal differences arising from the Clinton/Obama campaign. Well, that’s my opinion, at least.

    Maddow wasn’t sincere in her rant re: the financial crisis, so much as she realized she had her own soapbox and wanted to use it against someone she did not like, Mark Penn.

  9. This is hilarious – PR people complaining about someone in the media (in the PR business, basically) using PR techniques to confuse issues about a PR firm. Is that incest?

  10. I guess that was obviously from a non-PR person – As an engineer, I tend to confuse facts with reality. Can’t help laughing, though.

  11. Dave, as an engineer, I’m guessing your experience with and exposure to what you call “PR techniques” is limited to popular opinion and the image perpetuated by mainstream media.

    Dave, that is not PR. Despite your beliefs (and I realize many people hold them), PR is not about obfuscation: to obfuscate a problem with extraneous and erroneous information. That’s what Maddow did.

    And Dave, most of the comments you see here are from educators. We are the ones trying very hard to (a) prepare our students to say “NO” when asked do something regarded as bad practice and (b) help people like you understand that PR is not a universal term. The differing forms of practice are so broad that to use the term would be just as wrong as saying engineer in a generalized way. Then, I’d be lumping those that drive trains with those that build bridges … or even the colloquialism of engineer that means “One who carries through an enterprise by skillful or artful contrivance.”

    That contrivance is often seen to be one of expediancy …. something simple that skirts the rules, just to get the job done. That, of course Dave, is an effort that usually lead to the bridge falling down.

    PR – when done right – is all about building solid “real” (true) relationships.

  12. I will apologize to anyone who was offended by my remarks – I was not aware of the full nature of my audience.

    Most of what I think of as PR “techniques” I learned from some a “media” course back in school. That course was designed to teach the students how not to get taken, and I still find it very hard to watch television of any sort because I keep catching those techniques in use. FOX News is particularly offensive in this regard, with their regular “news” broadcast triggering my alarms every few seconds at times. I don’t even have to listen – the TV where I work out is silent, and I still can’t avoid the obvious distortions using the same techniques from my class of some twenty-plus years ago..

    From my perspective as a target of salesmen, “relationship management” has become a sales term of art for “keeping the customer buying” so that while I believe that I understand what you meant about real relationships, even that term has been appropriated.

    Anyway – “Public Relations” and “Advertising” seem to have become inextricably intertwined in the public mind. At the same time, any time I have seen public relations practiced, it has been in the sort of disaster control that Ms. Maddow implies. When you do your job properly, you are invisible, eh?

  13. american values were sacrificed when we tortured fifty-six innocent men in gitmo just because we thought that interrogating them (i.e. torturing them) could still yield useful information… considering the way the rest of the world perceives us i would suggest America hire Burson-Marstellar because we might just need a PR firm from hell to give us the needed facelift!