The pressure is on AOL chief executive Tim Armstrong to turn things around at Patch, the micro-local news site that has been a money loser for the giant media company. Unfortunately for Armstrong, he let the pressure show in an embarrassing way last week, prompting observers to question his management.
On Friday, a day after telling Wall Street that Patch would close down one-third of its 900 sites to cut costs, Armstrong held a conference call with 1,000 Patch employees to lay out the reorganization plan and rally the faithful to the task at hand. To his credit, he took full responsibility for the current wobbly state of affairs. But he also handed out a tough-talking, slightly derisive admonishment to employees: work harder, or work elsewhere. If you are “not invested in Patch, you owe it to everybody else at Patch to leave,” he said, as can be heard in the widely-circulated tape of the call.
The harangue got worse. Two minutes in, Armstrong called out Patch’s creative director who, as is his custom, was taking pictures in the meeting room where the call originated. “Put that camera down. You’re fired. Out,” Armstrong said, scarcely pausing before continuing his “motivational” talk. Given the audience size, it was only a matter of time before the story at the local news site went national. Ironically, Armstrong later said he fired the creative head because he was tired of media leaks.
THE PR VERDICT: “F” (Full Fiasco) for AOL’s Tim Armstrong, for a tyrannical tirade that sullied not only his personal brand but spoke poorly of how the business is run.
THE PR TAKEAWAY: Mind your message, your medium, and your manners. Chief executives, whether by temperament or for effect, will occasionally turn to the tantrum to motivate the troops. But Armstrong’s erratic histrionics missed the mark, even if he hadn’t made things worse with an “Off with his head!” fit of pique. And in front of 1,000 people, no less. Remember: Unless you’re talking to yourself, what you say privately can always go public. Airing dirty laundry can result in losing your shirt.