Tuesday, August 10, 2010

PR Guy Scared HP into Firing Hurd?

When HP needed justification in axing CEO Mark V. Hurd recently, they called in a consulting firm - one that is inexperienced in crisis communications or even tech - to give them grade-school PR 101 advice that amounted to "scandals are bad and scary."

When this story blew up last week, initial reports focused on allegations by an actress/marketing consultant (aren't they all multitasking these days) named Jodie Fisher that Hurd had sexually harrassed her. These charges proved untrue but an investigation showed that the CEO had submitted inaccurate expense reports to the tune of $20,000. All in all, the story had a little sizzle and no steak.

Then Hurd announces his "resignation" last Friday and we find out he'll get around a $37 million payout.

All the while, behind the scenes, the board at HP was being advised by something called APCO. We dug a little and learned this is a PR firm (that few have ever heard of). A PR rep had been counseling the company ahead of this scandal (just how much of a heads-up did they have?). The PR person used some classic fear tactics to get their client to act ("if you don't fire this guy in 24 hours, the world will end...and Fox News will say bad things about you!") But what they were told, really was of the "monsters are under your bed" variety.

Says The New York Times:
At a presentation to the directors of H.P., the public relations specialist from APCO cited recent sexual imbroglios like the one that diminished Tiger Woods. The specialist cautioned that only 20 percent of top executives survive these types of allegations and then they usually end up leaving because of the weight of negative publicity. He also warned that Gloria Allred, the celebrity lawyer representing Mr. Hurd’s accuser, would thrust H.P. and Mr. Hurd into a media nightmare...The representative from...APCO... even wrote a mock sensational newspaper article to demonstrate what would happen if news leaked.
Now, whether you agree or not about HP firing Hurd - who seemed a pretty effective leader - I'm more interested in this approach. The scare tactics the PR guy used would normally only work on/be employed with fairly unsophisticated clients (or on children afraid of the dark). One would think the HP board would be fairly with-it people who wouldn't need the PR 101 lecture. In short, this is all PRETTY OBVIOUS stuff that we would use when we were talking to client audiences holed up in some 4th-tier city in a 3rd-world country who had never even HEARD of PR. So, what he's saying is essentially true, but I can imagine the eye-rolling and smirking going on as he delivered his "presentation" (a crappy PowerPoint with his homemade newspaper stories?). It's all very grade-school.

He may have been appointed to this task solely to provide cover. I think we can all be sure some "account supervisor" from APCO didn't spur the board of HP, a mega-billion-dollar corporation, to make such a huge move. It is possible that a few members of a board - which had already decided to act - brought him in to add to the momentum on the decision-making and at least make a show of getting outside opinion. Though you would think they would bring in a brand-name, big PR company or management consultancy.

Surely, the PR rep is getting lots of slaps on the back at his cubicle today. We can be sure that whoever gets a new business pitch from APCO in the near future will be seeing a slide/hearing a shpiel about "providing critical crisis and issues management c-suite counsel to HP." Let's forget the fact that they actually "...[do] not have a particularly strong reputation for crisis management or technology expertise." If you happen to be subjected to this presentation, just remember: there are no monsters under the bed.

Thanks for reading,
Jonathan Gardner

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