The New York Times, as the nation’s most influential and impactful newspaper, routinely causes a crisis for dozens of people any given day. Its reporting and power unmask wrongdoing, stupidity and greed.
The irony is therefore inescapable that when the Times and Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. found themselves at crisis central yesterday he handled it so poorly.
Sulzberger fired Executive Editor Jill Abramson and replaced her with Managing Editor Dean Baquet. The Times won’t miss a step with Baquet, a Pulitzer Prize winner and now the paper’s first black editor. And by many accounts, Abramson, its first woman editor, had few fans in the newsroom. [Below, from left, Baquet, Abramson and her predecessor, Bill Keller.]
But Sulzberger, scion as he is of the newspaper’s ruling family and a member of Manhattan’s elite since he could crawl, abused every rule of crisis management in presenting his decision and in its aftermath.
He acted petulantly, refused to open up about what happened and why and demonstrated clearly that he was angry and emotional in the process.
Instead of a transparent explanation of the facts and answering questions until the questioners ran out of energy — as he would surely expect the subjects of Times stories to do for its reporters — he blocked and blunted and punted.
“You will understand that there is nothing more I am going to say about this, but I want to assure all of you that there is nothing more at issue here,” Sulzberger told his newsroom. One reporter later Tweeted that reporters and editors were “gobsmacked” by the news. That’s not a very high grade in crisis management circles.
An answer like that from the White House on, for instance, management of foreign policy toward Russia, would result in angry Times editorials about openness and the public’s right to know, followed by op-ed columnists’ spouting ire and outrage.
It adds up to hypocrisy and small-mindedness. Besides, as The New Yorker quickly reported yesterday, there absolutely was “more at issue here.”
The New Yorker reported that Sulzberger and Abramson were at odds recently after Abramson asserted that her pay and pension benefits were less than Keller’s had been in identical roles. The Times disputed this account and said that Abramson’s salary was “directly comparable” to Keller’s.
Sulzberger’s leadership of the Times’ company has long been questioned, including the decision to sell The Boston Globe at a huge loss and the hiring of Mark Thompson as CEO, fresh off a sex scandal on his watch at the BBC.
The opportunity to show transformative leadership and leave a crisis stronger personally and institutionally emerges from producing facts fast, transparently, and answering all the questions multiple times and in multiple forums until there is nothing left to say.
No one is going to rip Sulzberger for saying he replaced the executive editor because he and she disagreed on just about everything and he thought she was doing a poor job managing the newsroom. OK, he’s the boss, that’s his call.
But to pretend, stonewall [ironically the term that emerged from Watergate and the Nixon administration’s penchant for saying the obvious truth did not exist] and act in anger only prolongs the leadership crisis. Sulzberger can do as he pleases, but he may not like the reaction.
It’s not too late to try to at least mitigate this mess. Sulzberger should take a deep breath, calm down, suppress his “I am the boss” ego and sit down with a Times reporter and answer every question he or she has. And do so openly, honestly, factually and be self-effacing.
The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs and Crisis and Reputation Management at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the East. Learn more about EMA at mowerpr.com/crisisready. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.