Nobody has the full story of why Jill Abramson was abruptly booted from her position as executive editor of The New York Times yesterday, but news of the announcement has spawned plenty of theories about why she was dismissed. The Times itself reported that the newsroom was "stunned" upon hearing the news, despite reports in the past couple of years that staffers had issues with her management style.
The Times covered the story with the same journalistic approach it would take if Abramson had worked at any number of other news companies. It ran a story about Abramson on its front page this morning, explaining that she was "dismissed" and detailing internal strife involving Abramson and Dean Baquet, who has replaced her as executive editor. Owning the story was clearly the communications strategy.
PR pros must be equipped to handle abrupt changes in leadership. Even a universally well-loved leader can be toppled by one indiscreet tweet, and you have to be ready with a plan of action.
To help you navigate this tough situation, Natalie Best, executive VP at French/West/Vaughan, provides a look at the good, the bad and the ugly of executive succession communications:
- The Good. Treat human capital as a fundamental element of success within the company on a day-to-day basis. Don’t make succession planning a closed process. People take ownership of things they help shape. Involve your employees by grooming leaders early and having a strategic plan to introduce new leaders quickly.
- The Bad. Companies now communicate with employees, stakeholders and the media in significantly different ways and through channels that didn’t exist a few years ago. Unfortunately, this is where the need for speed comes into play—but with the right message. Waiting too long to address the succession status could cause questions and untruths to circulate, leading to decreased transparency and trust during a transition. So, act quickly and use the motto “Who else needs to know?”
- The Ugly. Don’t let the media break news to key stakeholders and employees. Let news about any C-level changes—good or bad—come from the company first. If employees find out about the move through the media, the situation puts the company in a defensive crouch.
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