Corporate chief executives occasionally lash out in calculated, public campaigns against negative press coverage, activist investors, and regulators. But it’s rare to see them confronting their direct competitor.
That’s why I was initially taken aback by T-Mobile CEO John Legere’s Twitter tirade Wednesday against Sprint and its new leader, Marcelo Claure.
Seven tweets in rapid succession blasted Sprint’s "framily" wireless plan and doled out sarcastic leadership advice to Claure.
The toxic tweets followed an announcement by Sprint that it was abandoning a bid to buy T-Mobile. US regulators opposed the proposal to merge the nation’s third- and fourth-largest mobile carriers.
Legere’s angry outburst is certainly understandable. It was T-Mobile’s second highly publicized failure to get purchased by a larger rival, the first being AT&T in 2011.
While the old-school PR guy inside me was aghast at Legere’s lack of a personal filter, the episode actually boosted my respect for Legere, who has a history of confrontation during media interviews.
"I don't walk closely up against the line. I ignore it. It's who I am," he told Business Insider. "I may be a little rough and crude, but I'm much more like my customers and employees than I am an executive. I think employees relate to the way I speak, customers relate to exactly the way I think and talk. And it's who I am."
Sometimes Legere goes too far and has to apologize, like when he said during a press event that AT&T And Verizon are "f----ers" that are "raping you." That was uncool, and his employees and customers reacted negatively.
F-bombs aside, Legere’s decision to follow in the footsteps of Richard Branson, Elon Musk, and Mark Cuban – to just be himself – is tough for a traditional corporate communications department to stomach, but a refreshingly candid information stream for employees, investors, media, and customers.
Even competitors benefit from the transparency of a pissed-off rival. No need to pay high-priced consultants to analyze what Legere is trying to say. Just read the tweets.
Other high-profile chief executives have learned the hard way why using one voice, internally and externally, can be beneficial.
Whole Foods CEO John Mackey was exposed in 2006 as the guy who used a pseudonym on a Yahoo Finance investor board to disparage a smaller competitor, Wild Oats Market. Years later, Mackey is a poster boy for transparency and continues to be outspoken, but under his own name. The self-professed libertarian recently likened Obamacare to fascism in an NPR interview.
Cuban, the billionaire Dallas Mavericks owner and entrepreneur, routinely confronts NBA officials and pays steep fines for his outbursts. Musk, founder of Tesla Motors, took to Twitter to attack the credibility of a New York Times reporter after a negative car review.
NYTimes article about Tesla range in cold is fake. Vehicle logs tell true story that he didn't actually charge to max & took a long detour.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 11, 2013
I imagine that providing traditional corporate communications counsel to this breed of chief executive is close to impossible. Yes, a corps of lawyers, investor relations officers, and PR staffers are still needed to support business units and keep important audiences connected.
But the basic tenets of PR are not harmed by maverick CEOs who craft their own messages and use their own communications channels. As long as there’s transparency and accessibility, these unfiltered corporate leaders are a refreshing change of pace who can either add to a brand’s value or crash and burn in a Twitter hellfire.
Dave Armon is president of Critical Mention.