Remember when people actually said what they meant in emails? It’s a lost art for sure. Between legal disclaimers (most of which are longer than the actual emails), web etiquette, emoticons, and general fear of Big Brother, you’re lucky to find anything other than cliches and “dial-in” details in a company email.
Which is why this Note from Carol Bartz, now the ex-CEO of Yahoo, was so refreshing.
Quick backdrop if you haven’t heard the story: In January 2009, Yahoo hired Bartz as CEO. Known for her blunt, aggressive style, she was brought in to right the ship and whip the company into shape – kind of like that scene in Pulp Fiction where they bring in “The Gimp”. Take a look:
In 2010, Bartz made a splash with a much-debated rev share deal that essentially gave Microsoft operational control over Yahoo’s search business. The deal didn’t pan out. Bartz butted heads with Board members and co-workers. Last week she was fired… and it all went down in a telephone call.
The corporate rules for deposed CEOs are pretty clear. You’re supposed to go quietly into the night with forced smiles and complimentary platitudes about “stepping down to pursue other interests” or “devoting more time to my family”. You’re supposed to enjoy the ride on your golden parachute, savor your juicy severance package, and cherish your set of steak knives as the parting gift.
But not Carol. She chose to send an email to all 13,600 Yahoo employees. It begins like this: “To All: I am very sad to tell you that I have just been fired over the phone by Yahoo’s Chairman of the Board.”
It went downhill from there. In an interview with a Fortune Magazine, she stated that the Yahoo Chairman was reading from a script during the infamous phone call. She referred to other Board members as “doofuses” before concluding: “These people f**ked me over.” (Wow. Don’t hold back.)
For those of you wondering whether this kind of behavior was out of character for Bartz, check out this shining moment with Michael Arrington at 2010 TechCrunch Disrupt.
Personally, I have no problem with a potty-mouthed, occasionally controversial CEO. I think it’s refreshing in a pro-wresting “what will he/she do next” kind of way. But what’s interesting about this episode from a brand perspective? For starters, the symbolism is obvious. Yahoo is, at its core, a communications company. And it’s pretty remarkable that with one terse email, the CEO and public face of the company completely rewrote the playbook on corporate communications.
Then there’s the issue of gender politics. Bartz was one of the few high-profile female CEOs in the U.S. Given the very public downfalls of other female CEOs (see: Carly Fiorina at HP) It’s fair to ask if this story would have been as big of a story had Bartz been a man. I doubt it.
But the true significance of the Bartz email runs even deeper. What it really means is this: in a digitally connected world, it’s getting really hard if not impossible for brands to control their brand. If a single email from a well-seasoned, closely managed CEO can make this strong of an impact, then it follows that under the right circumstances, a random Tweet or Facebook posting from any employee can also transform how the world views your brand.
And herein lies the Big Idea: what would happen if people actually started telling the truth in emails? Would racist photos posted online by an operations manager from a beverage company make you think twice about drinking the cola? Would you buy more t-shirts if you saw a blog posting from factory workers urging you to help them hit their quota and earn a bonus?
Lower-level employees still enjoy relative anonymity – but their actions, deed and words hold real power because they can build or destroy brand equity, either intentionally or not.
It’s a breathtaking yet scary proposition for brands.
Meanwhile, Yahoo’s stock price has risen over 10% since Bartz’s departure.