Lessons to be learned from termination at the Times

The Jill Abramson story won't quit. Interestingly, communications effectiveness - or the lack thereof - is at the center of it.

Jill Abramson
Jill Abramson

The Jill Abramson story won’t quit. Interestingly, communications effectiveness – or the lack thereof – is at the center of it.

To briefly summarize, on Friday, May 9, Abramson was told by Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., the paper’s publisher, she was being terminated. The announcement was made to the newsroom the following Wednesday. The story, predictably, exploded and it didn’t take long for rumors and speculation to drive much of the coverage. 

Gender discrimination quickly came to the fore. Was Abramson’s compensation less than that of Bill Keller, her predecessor? If she were a man, would she have been fired for exhibiting traits that some say reflect a double standard? 

The press coverage and online chatter about the speculation generated too much for Sulzberger to ignore, so he released a public statement less than 24 hours after his newsroom announcement. He then followed that up with another statement on Saturday. His message: "Jill engaged in arbitrary decision-making, a failure to consult and bring colleagues with her, inadequate communication, and the public mistreatment of colleagues." The result: termination.

The criticism didn’t stop. Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, appeared this past Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press and criticized Sulzberger for such a humiliating public firing. She repeatedly emphasized how he didn’t even say one positive thing about Abramson’s contributions to the Times – which, by the way, included winning eight Pulitzer Prizes on her watch.

The truth is, the official statement of Abramson’s firing did actually refer to thanking her for "not just preserving and extending the excellence of our news report … but also for inspiring her colleagues to adjust their approach to how we deliver the news." I guess one can debate if that was adequate recognition.

Since then, Ken Auletta has written a three-part piece for The New Yorker, Sulzberger did a sit-down one-on-one with Vanity Fair, Abramson made some fairly mild comments during her commencement address to Wake Forest University, and new executive editor Dean Baquet has been silent.

A few observations and lessons to be learned:

•The value of counsel. It is mind-boggling that Sulzberger was so unprepared for the firestorm that enveloped the Abramson announcement. Did he really think the termination of the editor of the Times would not be a major news story, especially the first female editor in the paper’s history?

This should be a lesson to Sulzberger – and many other CEOs – to think twice before they reduce the stature and experience of their top corporate comms professional. Such a pro would have likely brought more thoughtful insight to the situation.

The value of silence. While it is totally understandable that Sulzberger would want to defend his position, he has undoubtedly learned that’s a no-win situation in which the best strategy is to take the high road and be quiet. It is unseemly and undignified to be reading in public a boss’ explanation as to why he fired someone on his staff. The public will empathize with the victim. All of us can imagine how horrifying it would be to be fired and then have our boss explain the reasoning in the nation’s media.  

What about Dean Baquet? I met Baquet when he was editor of the Los Angeles Times. I found him to be consistent with his reputation: exceptionally bright and engaging. But why is nobody writing about his "hissy fit" when he discovered his boss was considering hiring someone with the same job title? This happens to people all the time – and our bosses may not tell us about it until the deal is essentially done.

In this case, Baquet found out, threw a fit, and apparently told Sulzberger he wouldn’t stand for it. Really? Besides this seeming remarkably immature, I have to wonder, ironically, if the media coverage of this reaction would have been different if Baquet was a woman. While I’m very cautious about injecting the "gender card" into situations, in this case my instinct is the reaction would have been very different.

Relationships matter. The word is Sulzberger and Abramson never really got along. There was apparent tension from the day she became executive editor. If so, Sulzberger made a big mistake making her editor in the first place.

Trust and comfort in a relationship are essential. You need not be best friends, but senior-level professional relationships are too intense and complicated to withstand personal tension for very long. Don’t underestimate the "soft side" of hiring. Yet fair warning: "comfort" shouldn’t mean "looks like me." Get comfortable getting outside your comfort zone.

Never underestimate the media’s appetite for hypocrisy, especially in other media outlets: There is little question that the "liberal" New York Times would be in the crosshairs of other media, aggrieved politicians, and gleeful pundits of all stripes once questions arose about whether Abramson was fired in a dispute over gender pay discrimination. Organizations that take highly public positions must be ready for special scrutiny when they appear not to walk the walk after talking the talk.

Bob Feldman is cofounder and principal of PulsePoint Group, a digital and management consulting firm. He can be reached at bfeldman@pulsepointgroup.com. His column focuses on management of the corporate communications function.

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