Resignations always have the potential to become PR issues. In the past few days, three high-profile resignations dominated news and social media, each with its own PR implications.
The first was Mark Hurd’s resignation as CEO of HP. The recommendation from the board’s PR counsel, APCO, to seek Hurd’s resignation and to disclose the (refuted) sexual harassment claim and expense report fraud, was generally good advice (especially considering the PR ethics crisis that the company addressed a few years ago). But just after the initial announcement, supporters of Hurd used the media to advance their opposing positions. So how well did the strategy work to limit damage to the company’s reputation? Time will tell, but there have been two opposing points of view among those covering story.
Financial and business experts said that the remedy was not warranted by the situation, especially given Hurd’s success in turning HP’s business results around. Business journalists and business leaders including Larry Ellison have been critical of the HP board’s actions – some saying the company went too far in executing its now-rigorous code of ethics. HP’s stock suffered a huge blow following the announcement. At the same time, other observers have said HP did not go far enough in revealing details about the incident. PR damage control is best evaluated in the long run, and the fact that both sides are critical is itself an indication that the PR strategy was probably about right.
The second resignation was Jet Blue flight attendant Steve Slater’s departure following an encounter with an abusive passenger. Slater swore at the passenger over the plane’s intercom, thanked passengers who behaved in a rational and courteous way, and exited the plane using the emergency slide (taking a couple of beers from the beverage cart on his way out).
News reports, Facebook and Twitter comments have hailed Slater as a folk hero — one even predicted that “hit that slide” will become the new vernacular for resigning. Jet Blue poked fun at the attention directed at the case, which is an appropriate response given how supportive the public has been about Slater’s actions.
Finally, there was a significant amount of coverage and chatter about a hoax resignation featuring an attractive employee who accused her boss of sexual harassment and playing Farmville excessively during working hours. The supposed employee shared her issues using a series of signs written on a dry-erase whiteboard. The hoax was planned and executed by a site called “theCHIVE.com” to drive web traffic. Journalists, chagrined that (most of them) fell for the stunt, vowed to be more skeptical in the future, but still had some fun with the pseudo-news. And the site, thanks to all of the fun enjoyed record traffic and visibility.
Defining the right PR strategy to preserve a corporate reputation after a high-profile resignation can be trickier than you might imagine. Balancing transparency and protection of private information can be a challenge during crisis communications. Stature, fun, money and sex — not to mention the context for the news — can drive interest. PR needs to anticipate often unpredictable human emotions, actions and reactions and to prepare for the unexpected.