Monday, January 14, 2013

AIG: Mensch, Schmendrick or Something in Between?

As a PR professional, someone who’s familiar with language, words, wordsmithery, and the subtleties of word meaning, Yiddish is one of the more fascinating tongue twisters. Many languages possess words that are hard to translate into others, but Yiddish earns high marks. Somehow emotion, more than literal translation, is bottled up in those strangely-lettered words.

“Mensch” and “schmendrick” were the two Yiddish terms floating around in my head after reading the latest AIG developments and the insurance giant’s 11th- hour decision not to sue the federal government. defines mensch as: “a decent, upright, mature, and responsible person.” For the purposes of this blog post, we’ll expand that meaning to include companies.

Last week, after mounting concern that AIG would in fact join a lawsuit filed by its former CEO Hank Greenberg over the allegedly “unfair” terms of Uncle Sam’s $182 billion 2008 bailout loan decision, the company’s reverse course – and the motivations behind it – are again getting mixed reviews. 
For a refresher, this was the loan that ultimately saved the company from collapse and what supporters say helped soften the resulting US recession.

The PR industry news source, Bulldog Reporter also raised the question in one of its articles, “Did Insurance Giant Forsake Shareholders To Protect Its Own Reputation?” If so, the article says, it would mark a “PR-affirming” break with the tradition of putting shareholders’ interests ahead of the company.

I, however, don’t think AIG’s decision requires much over thought. A public company’s first duty is toward its shareholders, true, but there are times when a “greater good” must be sought above all. 
Forget shareholders for a moment, if AIG were to throw its support behind the lawsuit, their “Thank You America” advertising campaign would be shot to hell. More than that, the company’s credibility, their “menschyness” (menschy is actually a real word) would be non-existent.

It also shouldn’t require a PR team to advise AIG that biting the hand that fed them would be a PR disaster of bailout proportions. The fuming reactions of millions of Americans should have been enough.

AIG probably doesn’t deserve mensch status for its late-in-the-game wise decision. But nor should it be considered a corporate schmendrick, which defines this Yiddish winner as “a stupid and ineffectual nobody.”

So go on AIG, give yourself a big pat on the back for repaying the money you borrowed, thanking 
America publicly, and ultimately making the right PR decision. 

If you’re still hungry for more on AIG, I suggest reading a rather aggressive post on Gawker, by Hamilton Nolan called It’s All Just a PR Calculation for A.I.G.

Oh, and Happy Monday!

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