AOL CEO Fires Employee During Conference Call, Bad PR Ensues

Things aren’t going so well over at Patch. It was announced on Friday that if 300 of the 900 local neighborhood sites didn’t turn a profit in the next two quarters they would be shut down or merged. Tim Armstrong, AOL CEO, is already making moves to reduce costs for Patch and recently fired an employee during a conference call – with more than 1,000 others listening in.

shutterstock_2710299Armstrong was in the middle of discussing Patch changes and how to deal with the press when he stopped mid-sentence to tell Creative Director Abel Lenz to put his camera down and get out.

“Patch from an experience – Abel put that camera down right now. Abel, you’re fired. Out.”

After a short pause he resumed talking and assured the rest of the employees that AOL is committed to Patch and will do its best to make the network profitable.

While stopping everything to publicly fire an employee isn’t the best way to handle things, Lenz couldn’t have chosen a worse time to take a photo. Armstrong was right in the middle of laying down ground rules for dealing with media and press.

“If you need somebody to blame for why we’re making changes to Patch, you can blame me. I’ll take full responsibility, whether you talk to friends, family, the press, anybody. It’s Tim Armstrong’s fault.”

According to Business Insider, Armstrong addressed the firing of Lenz later on in the call. Patch was starting to look like “loser-ville” with employees sending mixed messages to media.

“We can’t have people that are in the locker room giving the game plan away.”

It is not the best time to take a picture when your CEO is discussing internal information leaks to the press. Whether that photo was going to be saved on his phone, posted internally, tweeted out, or sent directly to CNN, it was not a good time to take it. Lenz was doing exactly what Armstrong was advising employees against – while he was advising against it.

shutterstock_116176801While this was a horrible Devil Wears Prada/Mad Men move, marketers shouldn’t walk away from this with a lesson in bad human resources. Instead we should focus on the PR direction of AOL. Armstrong is directly communicating with employees on how to deal with media and telling them to send anyone who asks to Armstrong. This keeps the 1,000 employees from spreading 1,000 different stories to the 1,000 reporters who ask. The message is controlled by Armstrong and he’s the only one who is spreading it.

That being said, any positive lessons that could come from a solid PR strategy was completely undone by the bad press coming from the audio of Lenz’s firing. So much for Armstrong moving out of “Loser-ville.”

About the author

Amanda Dodge