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Surprising AOL Conference Call Drama: Can Your Business Learn from It?

By Jason Mudd

If you’ve been looking for tips on revving up team morale, or how to tastefully release an employee, an audio clip of a recent AOL conference call can offer you – and millions of other listeners – some tips on how not to achieve these tasks.

Tim Armstrong, AOL CEO, recently addressed employees during a conference call that was intended to focus on plans for streamlining or getting back on track with the company’s struggling Patch websites. While the strategy involved closing down some of the Patch sites, the call took a drastic turn when Armstrong publicly and briskly fired Abel Lenz, creative director, in front of 1,000 participants.

Lenz was trying to take a picture of the call taking place, having taken pictures at board meetings in the past. Reports say Lenz was advised not to photograph conference calls, yet Armstrong’s very abrupt firing of the employee in front of peers is what’s capturing the negative response. Armstrong also told other team members to pack up and get out if they didn’t wish to assume a serious attitude toward Patch.

Since the incident, which quickly went viral online, Armstrong has released an official memo/apology to AOL employees acknowledging that the way he let Lenz go wasn’t right – yet Lenz is still without a job. Not only has the audio clip continued to circulate, but so has the employee memo in which Armstrong says he had an “emotional” reaction and that the firing should have been done differently, from a human perspective.

Can the AOL conference call issue be “patched,” from a PR perspective?

Points to consider:

  1. While Armstrong may believe the employee memo satisfied the need for a response, from an employee’s perspective, a direct message in the form of a video may have been more appropriate. Sending an email memo created further distance between Armstrong and employees who may already be frustrated or concerned over the struggling company. It’s difficult to convey tone and intention via email, especially when reaching out to thousands of employees.
  2. Very few, if any, messages that are sent via email are truly private; Armstrong should have anticipated that the message would make its way to news sources and would escalate negative PR responses from audiences. Instead, he could have sent a formal message in an official media release format with his thoughts and comments, which could have garnered some targeted news coverage rather than a “leak” of an employee memo.
  3. Armstrong could reach out to the AOL audience in a direct way using social media tools. This is a chance to guide and direct the conversation, rather than avoid it. Messages could be based on the reality that everyone’s human, and everyone makes mistakes in high-stress moments. Another angle could include redirecting the conversation by posting questions/polls asking the audience what they’d like to see next from Patch.

One thing everyone can learn from Armstrong's PR gaffe is that in the age of smartphones there are cameras — and microphones — everywhere and you should always assume you are speaking to a larger audience — whether your intended audience is one employee or numbers in the thousands.

By Jason Mudd, APR

Jason Mudd, APR, is the CEO of Axia Public Relations and an Emmy-Award-winning accredited public relations practitioner, speaker, author and entrepreneur. His public relations portfolio includes work for established national brands such as American Airlines, Dave & Buster’s, Florida Blue, H&R Block, Hilton, HP, Miller Lite, New York Life, Pizza Hut, Ray Charles and Verizon and emerging brands like Brightway Insurance, Pragmatic Works and It Works! Global.

Topics: digital PR, reputation management, crisis communications, online reputation management, shared media

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