Many smart CEOs have ignored advice from their PR chiefs and lived to regret it.
We all lose our tempers, and sometimes we get ourselves into trouble as a result. But when Eric Schmidt, Jeff Bezos, Steve Ballmer, Reed Hastings, or Elon Musk throws a fit, there’s often hell to pay.
I covered Silicon Valley over a span of two decades and was always wowed whenever genius CEOs allowed their emotions to get the best of them, refused to heed warnings from PR and marketing chiefs, and steered their companies into unnecessary and sometimes harmful controversies.
To any managers reading this: if it can happen to them, it can happen to you.
A recent example came a month ago when Amazon launched an all-out Twitter war against Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who often criticize the e-tailer’s labor and economic policies. As Amazon tried to quell an attempt to unionize at a company warehouse in Alabama, Amazon’s senior vice president of worldwide operations launched a broadside. “I often say (Amazon is) the Bernie Sanders of employers,” wrote Dave Clark in a Twitter post. “But that’s not quite right, because we actually deliver a progressive workplace.”
Amazon kept up the snark, bringing unwanted attention to the union issue and a heap of criticism onto the company. With many questioning if Amazon’s PR people were asleep at the wheel, Recode reported that Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s megarich founder and former CEO, issued orders to aggressively challenge Warren and Sanders.
Ultimately, the unionization attempt failed, but pundits noted that Amazon would have prevailed without the Twitter war.
A similar example of a costly and unnecessary confrontation occurred when Eric Schmidt, the former Google CEO, demanded his PR staff stop talking to CNET. A reporter from the tech news outlet sought to illustrate the power of Google’s search engine to uncover a person’s private data by Googling Schmidt. The CEO obviously didn’t like what the reporter found.
It turned out that just prior to the incident, a top Google PR official had left the company, leaving no one senior enough to halt the embargo, Google sources told me at the time. When CNET reported on how Schmidt planned to punish the site, scores of publications railed against the CEO for hypocrisy and fearing his own product. Google quickly lifted the blackout, but the damage was done. Schmidt’s botched retaliation was No. 19 on a list of the 101 Dumbest Moments in Business.
At Netflix, a lack of an established PR presence was at least partially to blame for blemishing the otherwise stellar career of Hastings, CEO of the popular streaming video site. Nearly a decade ago, Hastings raised prices for his popular DVD-by-mail service, leading to a customer revolt. As a growing number cancelled their subscriptions, a frustrated Hastings ignored warnings from his newly hired PR chief and responded to the controversy by hastily producing a bizarre video to announce he would spin off the DVD business and focus on streaming. He was right to pivot, but his haphazard approach to communicating the plan angered customers even more. Netflix’s stock plunged, and the move prompted “Saturday Night Live” to poke fun at Hastings on national TV.
To CEOs and executives out there, when your blood is up, don’t act rashly. Seek advice from your PR people, or reach out to a firm like Bospar. Remember, companies that engage in feuds or otherwise act in anger typically cause themselves more harm than good.