CEO’s Firing of Patch Creative Director Sends the Wrong Message

Image: C Flanigan/WireImage

Tim Armstrong was a media darling when he ran Google’s advertising sales, marketing and operations teams. But it’s been a different story since he became chairman-CEO of AOL in 2009, as Armstrong has struggled to right the AOL ship. The latest episode may not help matters, particularly when it comes to the perception of whether Armstrong is in full control of the company.

The episode stems from a conference call on Friday, in which Armstrong spoke to the 1,000 or so employees of AOL’s local news network, Patch, according to Business Insider.  

The day before the call Armstrong told Wall Street analysts that Patch would shrink from 900 to 600 websites, Business Insider said.

In the recording, obtained by media-business blog Romenesko, Armstrong is heard explaining his plans for Patch.

“There’s a couple of things I want you guys to realize and really think about and sink in, and if it doesn’t sink in and you don’t believe what I’m about to say, I’m going to ask you to leave Patch,” Armstrong said. “And I don’t mean that in a harsh way; I mean that in the way of we have to get Patch into a place where it’s going to be successful and it’s going to be successful for a long time.”

Soon after, Armstrong is heard referring to Patch Creative Director Abel Lenz, who reportedly was in the habit of taking pictures of AOL execs to post on Patch’s blog. “Abel, put that camera down right now! Abel, you’re fired,” Armstrong said.

Of course, it was Armstrong’s prerogative to fire Lenz. But, from a PR perspective, the move is questionable.

Firing Lenz in front of 1,000 of his colleagues creates a perception that, in the face of adversity, Armstrong can’t keep his cool. If it was absolutely necessary to fire Lenz, Armstrong should have taken such action in private.

Perhaps Armstrong thought that, in summarily firing Lenz in front of the Patch staff, he was sending a larger message to the troops. But in humiliating Lenz in public, the message that will probably stick with AOL employees (not to mention the media) is that Armstrong has a rather nasty way of dealing with insubordination—if that’s what it was.

The firing is a stark reminder to communicators about the importance of media coaching; and not media coaching that happens a few times a year, but that is part of a regular PR schedule with senior managers.

There is no such thing as a media cocoon. Whatever the boss says (and wherever he or she says it) PR pros need to remind senior managers that the mic is always hot and there’s probably a camera nearby, to boot, recording everything for everyone to see.

Perhaps Lenz was about to be downsized anyway, but the manner in which he was fired during the conference call now stands to have a bigger impact on AOL’s fortunes than Armstrong’s plans to reorganize Patch with fewer people working there.

Follow Matthew Schwartz: @mpsjourno1


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About Matthew Schwartz

Group Editor, PR News: Matthew Schwartz is group editor of PR News, the leading source of trends, how-to content and best practices for PR professionals. Matthew leads the editorial strategy for PR News’ premium content products—including its weekly newsletter—and for its digital presence. Matthew was editor of PR News from 2003-2005. Prior to returning to PR News, Matthew was a reporter for Crain’s BtoB and Media Business magazines, where he covered business marketers and media companies. He was also editor of BMA Buzz, a biweekly email newsletter covering B2B marketing, advertising and social media, and contributing writer to Advertising Age Custom. Matthew has helped to launch blogs on behalf of ZoomInfo and direct marketing agency The Kern Organization. He also spent a few years in cable-news precincts, working as a writer/producer at CNN and Fox News Channel.

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  • Lauren Keatley

    Patch’s readers and employees both end up losers because of Armstrong’s messages. AOL has been sending the wrong messages to employees a long time. While I enjoyed reporting for Patch, my local editor told me regularly, “AOL keeps changing things. They throw things up to see what sticks.” She sounded weary of the company’s messages in 2011.

    With Armstrong’s latest message, readers will miss important stories from sites that closed – and those that remain open. Patch’s local editors are tasked with nearly the impossible: producing good, usable content, sometimes for several communities, almost singlehandedly. Substance is wilting and some readers are complaining to Patch that it is sending the wrong messages. (See: readers’ August 12 comments, Somehow, AOL needs to water and fertilize Patch so its brand fares better than Mr. Lenz. Maybe, Patch needs a new landscaper.