Though hostile, blogosphere proves a PR haven for AIG

Post-bailout, AIG airs its message amid the snarky antipathy of the Daily Kos.

Post-bailout, AIG airs its message amid the snarky antipathy of the Daily Kos

In managing a gargantuan PR crisis, sometimes striding into enemy territory—and getting smacked around a bit—is the best, and perhaps only, way to get your message across.

AIG’s Peter Tulupman did just that when he engaged in a spirited give-and-take with Daily Kos readers/commenters in the wake of AIG’s $85 billion emergency federal loan.

“We have had a difficult time getting mainstream media to run balanced stories about AIG,” said Tulupman, the insurance giant’s manager of corporate public relations. “We were really struggling to get our story out there.”

So if the mainstream media was less than warm and fuzzy in its coverage—especially after AIG spent more than $440,000 dollars for an executive getaway at a California beach resort just days after the bailout—what in the world would prompt Tulupman to engage the blogosphere, especially a left-leaning site such as Daily Kos?

A confluence of AIG’s frustration with the coverage and Kos editors’ and readers’ escalating anger over the Wall Street bailout brought about the exchange.

Here’s how it evolved: Tulupman said that though he’s been watching social media for a couple of years, he and his PR colleagues hadn’t really interacted with blogs until a few months ago.

“We’ve been aware of what’s going on in social media, but it was a really a monitoring approach,” he said. As a B-to-C company, AIG’s PR staff was working mostly with mainstream press—but from the blogosphere, there wasn’t a tremendous amount of coverage on AIG from an insurance or financial products perspective.

When the financial sector tanked in mid-September and Washington put together a colossal bailout package, all that changed. Tulupman suddenly faced an onslaught of media queries from dailies to business weeklies to TV and radio—and they were none too friendly.

“The media environment has been difficult at best,” Tulupman said. Most coverage of bailout deals is long on emotion and short on financial details amid the prevailing sense that big business is getting a free ride.

Reaching out to readers

It occurred to Tulupman that blogs might offer a venue for discussing the steps that AIG was taking to manage its finances. There would, of course, be a tradeoff: Bloggers can be snarky to the point of viciousness; however, blogs might be the optimum venue for a real conversation about AIG.

“It would let us get out beyond the noise and the biases and let people ask questions,” he said.

In early November, Daily Kos executive editor Susan Gardner posted a critical article about AIG’s spending money on a gathering of financial planners at a Phoenix resort. Tulupman sent a personal e-mail to Gardner, with the text of an AIG press release disputing the information that had been reported about the Phoenix getaway.

In her own post about the e-mail exchange, Gardner suggested that Daily Kos readers generate questions that Tulupman and AIG could answer about how the insurer would manage its finances and conserve cash.

“We realized that we could have some kind of interaction,” Tulupman said.

Gardner submitted about 50 reader questions to Tulupman; he then asked Gardner to trim the list to “the 10 questions that they would most like answered.” (Tulupman noted that he left Gardner the task of trimming the queries, “so that it wouldn’t look like we were cherry-picking the questions we wanted to answer.”) Gardner countered by asking Tulupman to answer about 30 of the questions, and she and Tulupman agreed that the exchanges would span several postings.

Though critical comments kept coming in to Kos, it quickly became clear that the give-and-take would help communicate AIG’s side of the story.

“I want to point out to Daily Kos users this is an interesting interaction we’re trying here, with ordinary Americans getting the ear of a major corporation directly, and it couldn’t be done without the high quality of questions submitted and the flexibility of Mr. Tulupman – and the time he’s putting in to try and make it work,” Gardner wrote in a post about the Q&A process.

The first round of answers to reader questions was posted in mid-November; Tulupman says that he considers this an ongoing process. This month, Gardner wrote about a fresh wave of criticism related to AIG’s plan to make retention payments and cash awards to key executives. She suggested readers submit new questions for Tulupman about this latest issue.

As it’s still a work in progress, Tulupman demurred on gauging the outcome of the process. But for a company struggling to defend itself, any chance to talk to taxpayers—who are ultimately footing the bill for the bailout—must be seen as something of a success.

“We’re reaching people directly, and it shows that we are trying to be transparent,” Tulupman said. “The Daily Kos readers are skeptical—I understand that—but they’re trying to engage with us in a very civilized way. I appreciate that we can turn down the volume and talk without rancor.”

Advice for blog interaction

Thinking about engaging in a similar dialogue with relevant blogs? Here are Peter Tulupman’s guidelines:

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