Getting Fired: A Lesson in Truthful Public Relations

Oh, boy. Carol Bartz, the recently canned CEO at Yahoo, got the news via a telephone call: “You’re fired.” Wow. You would have thunk that the board member in charge of that kind of firing at an Internet technology company could have at least sent a pithy e-mail or text message. But that’s not the real story here.

The real story from a public relations perspective is what Bartz did. She quickly tapped out an e-mail to all Yahoo employees saying: “I’ve just been fired.”

What? No resigning to pursue other professional opportunities. Or spend more time with family.

Hey, during my stint in the corporate gulag at Goodrich I wrote many of those dishonest — yet face-saving for the company and the executive involved — announcements. Mr. or Ms. X has decided to vacate his/her corner office and forfeit millions in compensation and perks to spend more time with his/her family. LOL

But amazingly enough, I never had a journalist ask me for the real reason for the departure. Also, when a news media executive or editor is pushed to the curb you see the same type of public relations dribble in print and online. Maybe it’s just accepted practice. Sigh.

So I give Bartz points for candor and honesty — but that’s not a view shared by everyone.

Here’s from a NYT article, “Blunt E-Mail Raises Issues Over Firing at Yahoo“:

“I’ve just been fired.”

With those four words, Yahoo’s chief executive, Carol A. Bartz, did something Tuesday afternoon that dismissed managers almost never do: She told the truth.

In the upper echelons of corporate America, executives are forever leaving to pursue urgent opportunities, develop important new ventures or, that old standby, spend more time with their long-neglected families. Hardly anyone ever admits to being sacked. Even in cases where the executive has all but been bodily ejected from his executive suite — Rick Wagoner of prebankruptcy General Motors or Tony Hayward of post-oil-spill BP — the most they say is that they have been asked to step aside.

Ms. Bartz’s blunt statement, sent in an e-mail blast to Yahoo’s 13,400 employees, immediately ignited a debate: Was she a pioneer trying to provide more transparency and authenticity at the top ranks of prominent companies, or was her salvo an unprofessional tirade that was a personal and professional mistake?

Jeffrey Pfeffer, a Stanford professor who is an expert in organizational behavior, is in the first group. “The truth helps you improve,” he said. “When people lose their jobs and there’s no acknowledgement, the potential for learning is lost.” Ms. Bartz’s comments also served her own cause, the professor said. “She’s acting as if this is not her fault. She’s not embarrassed. She’s controlling the story.”

But Jennifer Chatman, a professor and chair of the Haas Management of Organizations Group at the University of California, Berkeley, said Ms. Bartz’s angry words could help sink the struggling search portal. Now the directors who ejected Ms. Bartz are under attack at the moment employees need them to save Yahoo.

“A chief executive who was thinking first about the long-term interests of her company would not have done this,” Ms. Chatman said, adding that there are problems of perception in this case as well: “She’s one of a handful of top female business leaders. It would be easy to attach this to a stereotype of women leaders as not in control of their emotions.”

Whatever the effect on Yahoo, unvarnished comments like Ms. Bartz’s are likely to become more common. Chief executives are increasingly conscious of their personal brand and how it can diverge from the corporate brand.

“I would say this is going to become much more of a trend,” said Homa Bahrami, a senior lecturer at Berkeley and an adviser to several Silicon Valley start-ups. “I see it already in private companies when there is a change in management. The chief executive picks up the phone and tells the investors exactly what happened. The younger generation appreciates this honesty. You’re authentic and you’re vulnerable.”

Authenticity, though, can backfire, and vulnerability is not always something to be desired. Executives who are not on their way out are learning that broadcasting their feelings can have unintended consequences.

I understand very well the sensitivities involved on the part of the person being fired and those doing the firing. Still, it’s refreshing to see someone tell the truth and not hide behind disclosures that are misleading at best and dishonest at worst.

And I know I should be using this space today to opine on Obama’s jobs speech tonight. But truth be told — see how easy it is — if the U.S. Open tennis matches don’t get rained out again today I’ll be watching tennis and not the Prez.

Just sayin’.



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