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Ozy Media, Andrew Cuomo, and Best Practices in Communicating CEO Transitions

by Montieth Illingworth

CEO and C-suite executive transitions come in several varieties. The meltdown of Ozy Media following the COO’s impersonating a YouTube executive in a call with Goldman Sachs is at the extreme end. Most executive transitions are predictable affairs. But one trend complicating communicating CEO transitions to stakeholders is that CEO and C-suite tenures are getting shorter. For CEOs, that stands at an average of five years. Overall, the tenure across the C-suite is even lower. The numbers vary by sector, but not by much. Clearly, being a corporate leader isn’t easy. Change is a constant within and around the organization.

In our work across crisis communications and litigation communications, we have dealt with a number of CEO transitions—some under good circumstances, some under bad. In all cases, stakeholders are increasingly demanding full transparency and want to be assured that the organization is holding itself to a high level of accountability about everything it does within and outside its walls. These stakeholders include venture and private equity investors like those who plowed $80 million into Ozy Media only to see the money virtually vanish.

Here are three best practices in how to handle communicating CEO transitions:

  1. Communicating CEO Transitions—Plan?  What Plan?

Most CEO transitions are straightforward. Announce the change, include a credible reason, and identify the successor and, if needed, the succession plan. For the more complicated transitions, the biggest fault line in the communications plan is to assume that complete information is on hand or will be. It’s what you don’t know that creates the biggest headaches. Sudden departures, for example, all have a backstory that the organization must examine and think carefully about how they’re explained to a wider audience.

It is key to have a plan in place and one supported by the Board of Directors, but expect and prepare for it to be adapted (and fast). This is more of a strategic mindset than something that can be put on paper. Central to this mindset is erring on the side of more transparency, not less. Beyond that, you also need to know if and at what point the transition has reached an ethical moment, and then decide how that will be acted on. More on that below.

  1. The Trap of Centering Power and Privilege

Events that demand a CEO’s resignation—like a sexual harassment claim—are all too often “gamed” via a communications strategy that seeks to determine if the allegation, and its public impact, will be considered egregious enough to require the departure. Often, the requisite apology is made and usually in a way that skirts full responsibility to the victim(s). Implied is the assumption that power, as long as it’s being held, and privilege, which is claimed as the entitlement of the powerful, can displace moral and ethical rightness. This is a doomed strategy. It undermines the integrity of not just the corporate leader, but everyone in and outside the company who participates in enabling the person.

Take the case of former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Gaming the situation was precisely Cuomo’s strategy. (A key read here to understanding that strategy is Shelly Ross’ September 24, 2021, New York Times op-ed.) In the end, not only did Cuomo have to resign, but his enablers were also implicated in the gaming as well, lost their jobs, and no doubt destroyed their careers.

Notable among the enablers was Roberta Kaplan, then Chairwoman of Time’s Up, who was involved in coordinating the communications strategy for Cuomo. Not only did Kaplan resign, but because of her actions, Time’s Up itself dissolved. Likewise, Cuomo’s brother, CNN anchor Chris Cuomo, also had to answer for his involvement in the communications strategy— particularly egregious as a member of the media who is held to high ethical standards. This has brought damage not only to his reputation, but also to the judgment of CNN’s management, which—publicly at least—exacted no consequences at all for Cuomo in moonlighting to keep his brother in power.

  1. Recognize the Ethical Moment

Andrew Cuomo squandered his ethical moment, which is simply defined as putting the victim’s interests first and recognizing in a timely way that neither power nor privilege is more important than “doing the right thing.” The “right thing” varies in type and urgency, but if you don’t recognize the opportunity and the obligation—or do but choose to ignore it—the moment in which you need to be seen as ethically centered is squandered and will pass. Indeed, when corporate leaders fail to step up and into the fire of these moments, the long-term impact on the integrity of the individuals and the organizations is deeply corrosive.

A related question here is the responsibility investors have in these dynamics. Invariably, there are warning signs in the C-suite of behaviors that could go “off the rails.” This includes those at Ozy Media. No C-level executive lies to their banker without practicing similar behaviors in other ways, small or large. These events always have a “reverse tail” of related actions and utterances. Who would be better positioned to see these behaviors and act on them than the venture and private equity investors who, after all, typically also sit on the Boards of their portfolio companies?

The corrosion, then, of ethical moments missed is usually also the result of CEO and C-suite infractions ignored. Much is said about a company’s culture being shaped by “tone from the top.” All too often, though, a failure by corporate leadership is inseparable from a failure amongst and within the surrounding ecosystem of financially or personally (like Chris Cuomo) interested parties. Defining and communicating the “tone” of executive and organizational accountability must be seen and communicated as a widely shared responsibility.

Get in touch to see how we can help with communicating major corporate critical events, including CEO transitions.