What happens when the tweeter-in-chief resigns?

Apr 20, 2012
<p>Best Buy moves quickly to remove tweets and blogs of former CEO who left under a cloud last week.</p>

Tweets and blogs are an easy way for your CEO and CFO to connect directly with investors, customers and employees, humanizing your executives and adding color to a corporate strategy behind the numbers.

The online conversation can also show how a corporate executive’s thinking evolves over time and how he or she responds to changes in the business and the economy.

But what happens when the tweeter-in-chief resigns under a cloud?

Less than a week ago, Brian Dunn was the visible face of the Minnesota-based electronics retail giant Best Buy. A 28-year veteran who has served as CEO since 2009, Dunn was a prolific user of social media and a passionate advocate for why CEOs should tweet, blog and be on Facebook.

He had become an example to other Twitter-shy chief executives, bylining a piece in 2010 for the Harvard Business Review, entitled: ‘Best Buy’s CEO on learning to love social media’.

 In it he made the case that executives who avoid the new communication tools put themselves and their companies at risk of ‘not being in the conversation at all.

Over time, that can be fatal to a business. ’

Now, however, it’s Dunn himself who is out of the conversation as his social media persona at Best Buy has been erased.

 Last Tuesday, Best Buy announced Dunn’s resignation, saying the board and Dunn had agreed ‘it was time for new leadership to address the challenges that face the company. ’

The directors appointed fellow board member Mike Mikan, former CFO of UnitedHealth Group, to the role of interim CEO as they launched a search for a successor.

It’s been a busy few weeks for the beleaguered consumer electronics giant. Barely two weeks before Dunn’s abrupt departure, the company reported a fourth quarter net loss of $1.7 billion as it struggles with online competition.

 At the same time, it announced plans to shed $800 mn in costs over the next three years, including cutting 400 jobs at its headquarters.

The Minneapolis StarTribune has escalated the story beyond a management shake-up in times of turmoil, reporting that the board is investigating questions around Dunn’s relationship with a female employee. 

It has also reported on long-simmering concerns among some outside observers about business relationships between the company and various board members, including company chairman and founder Richard Schulze and family members.

 Best Buy wasted no time in erasing as much of Dunn’s fingerprints as it could.

Following his departure, his prolific tweets @bbyCEO and his blog, Brian’s Whiteboard, were wiped off the company’s public website and from www.twitter.com. 

His personal page remains on Facebook, with a timeline that intermingles parental posts about his son’s high school sports exploits with Best Buy-related developments.

But old links from Facebook back to his Best Buy blogs result in the familiar error message: ‘404 – File not found.’ Dunn has also launched his own personal Twitter handle: @briandunn.

 ‘We want to clear the platform, have one CEO, one voice,’ says Ron Hutcheson, a public relations consultant with Hill+Knowlton Strategies and spokesperson for the Best Buy board of directors.

‘We’re not trying to obliterate the other guy.’

Hutcheson further explains that the former CEO’s blogs and tweets were not singled out: the company pulls posts of ‘any employee who blogs for Best Buy’ after he or she leaves. 

While the Brian’s Whiteboard blog posts and tweets may have fallen victim to the company’s social media policy, the cloud hanging over Dunn’s departure will draw scrutiny to every move by Mikan and the board.

Many of Dunn’s tweets were typical transitory flashes, touting a new store opening, connecting with a customer or congratulating an employee for a job done well.

But some posts, including video interviews and blogs, were more substantive, explaining company strategy or expanding on quarterly earnings, helping investors, employees and customers understand the company direction.

Arguably, a blog post from a junior marketer attending a trade show for Best Buy who then moves to another company is in a different category from a post from the CEO expanding on the company’s turnaround plans. So should a company’s social media policy treat them the same?

‘We haven’t seen this happen before,’ observes Darrel Heaps, CEO of Q4Web Systems, a Toronto-based firm that advises companies on web and social media strategies focused on shareholders and investors.

But eliminating the past posts of a departed CEO, particularly one leaving under a cloud, ‘makes sense,’ Heaps adds. ‘The easy decision is just to remove all of it.’ His argument is that it is better to overreact and eliminate any risk a journalist might read old posts and take them as commentary about Dunn’s resignation.

He also says he doesn’t see any disclosure issues, as it’s likely Dunn’s posts did not concern material information that was not disclosed elsewhere by the company, and he praises a statement from Hutcheson affirming that the interim CEO will continue to blog and tweet.

 ‘Obviously, Best Buy sees value’ in continuing the practice, Heaps comments.

‘The value of all this stuff is the timeliness and relevancy of what they are talking about today. ’

The Best Buy case points to a gap at most companies that lack a social media policy ‘that would address these transitions,’ says Nora Barnes, professor of marketing at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. ‘Crisis management should be part of every social media policy. Very few companies have one.’

Barnes, who has studied the use of social media by Fortune 500 companies, says Best Buy ‘did the right thing’ by expunging Dunn’s past tweets and blog posts. ‘The company was in a crisis situation and wanted to quickly move away from that person,’ she explains.

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