Shareholders may be asking the board of J.C. Penney “Penny for your thoughts?” Or perhaps demanding it, after the startling news of a CEO switcheroo this past Monday. That CEO Ron Johnson was ousted is not a surprise. The real surprise came when the board announced Johnson’s replacement: his predecessor, Myron Ullman, who was fired by that same board in 2011.
When Johnson arrived he moved forward with a radical makeover for Penney: boutique stores under one roof. This idea included securing Martha Stewart, who assured Johnson she could step out of her exclusive contract with Macy’s. That plan blew up like a bad soufflé, with Johnson in court admitting he’d never read the fine print of Stewart’s contract with Macy’s, and thousands of Martha’s products being court-barred from shelves.
Now comes news that Johnson is being replaced by the very predecessor he took over from, ostensibly because the man wasn’t doing a bang-up job to begin with. JCP’s price tumbled 10.3 percent after a brief spike when Johnson’s termination was announced. Shareholders aren’t just calling for a replacement for him, but for the entire board. This is practically a textbook example of PR “dont’s.”
THE PR VERDICT: “F” (Full Fiasco) for the board of J.C. Penney.
THE PR TAKEAWAY: When playing poker, keep your hand facing in – no need to show all cards to the other players. A new CEO, a drastic new plan; where were the checkpoints along the way? With only one of the ten J.C. Penney board members having retail experience, no wonder the organization is in trouble. The board clearly realized that it needed to oust Johnson to stem the falling revenues and bad publicity, but the answer is rarely to go back in time. As Plan B is nothing more than a return to former issues, then it may be worth delaying until a more palatable alternative is found. If the board insists on reuniting with a former CEO, then coach the ill-chosen replacement not to admit that he was re-hired only last weekend and has no plan to speak of. Showing the losing hand is always a losing tactic and in this case, likely to cost JCP a pretty penny.