Hippocrates bust in marble

AOL CEO and the Hippocratic Oath

First, do no harm.

by Carl Melville | AOL crisis management was on full display this week. What can we learn from it?

The toughest job in any organization is CEO. While fodder for endless jokes, CEOs are accountable for enterprise success. When a company falters, if it falters, and how it falters, doesn’t matter. It’s always the CEO’s fault. Blame as well as reward are outsized. 

The CEO role is tough enough without creating self-inflicted wounds that could be easily avoided. As a recap, in case you missed it, the CEO of AOL, during a series of briefings and interviews, dug a public relations hole — hit bottom — then kept digging. It was ugly. His comments included blaming a 401(k) change on spiraling health-care costs, and then blaming spiraling health-care costs on the babies of two employees. His comments may have been nuanced — but in the continuous echo chamber of Internet news this matters little. One of the babies mother’s spoke out, further fanning the flames, even after his humbling and very public apology (and policy reversal).

The first rule of crisis management is avoiding the crisis in the first place.

We can disagree about the second rule of crisis management, but clearly the first rule is to avoid the crisis altogether. Simply preparing some thoughts in advance, and running them by competent communications people (which they have plenty of) would have prevented this hailstorm and aftermath. (note: If his communications team cleared these remarks, they should be clearing out their desks.)

Most CEOs that I work with vet all public comments, extemporaneous or prepared, just as a precaution. The events of this week are perfect example on why that is a prudent policy. I don’t know what Tim Armstrong’s normal procedures are, but if they don’t include such a review this was an accident waiting to happen.

If you are accountable for internal or external communications in your organization, and if your CEO does not already have a public communications plan for his or her comments, it would be a worthy investment to make, Likewise, a thoughtful crisis communication plan that includes the contingencies for handling explosive situations rather than exacerbating them. By the time one is needed, it is far too late to craft.

Aftermath. This will eventually blow over, as all crises do. The AOL crisis management team will revisit and revise processes and practices. Armstrong, who seems well-regarded, will likely continue to lead. The damage done to the AOL brand, including a very public wart on AOL leadership, will take time to repair. All of this could have been easily avoided.

Hippocrates may not have been a crisis manager, but he certainly nailed it. First, do no harm.

Carl Melville is the principal at The Melville Group, a strategic marketing practice focused on revenue solutions for supply chain organizations.

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1 reply
  1. Frank Bamma says:

    Great piece. Thanks. What would you have done after the blow-up but before the firestorm – if anything – to change the outcome?

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