When a public company and its board are being hammered in the press, do they have the right—even the obligation—to defend themselves?
If ever such a pair were getting beaten like a rented mule, it is Hewlett-Packard and its board of directors, which over the past 10 weeks have been castigated in the media for (a) having hired Mark Hurd and (b) firing Mark Hurd and (c) paying him too much and (d) letting him go to Oracle and (e) suing him for going to Oracle and (f) replacing him with Leo Apotheker.
There's plenty of blame to go around here, but the HP board in particular has been hammered for its various bumbling efforts related to the CEO position at the world's largest IT company. In one such instance that I wrote about recently, one of the world's most highly respected management experts, Jack Welch, referred to the HP board as "somewhat dysfunctional."
I'm not going to retread any of that old ground, but instead explore in the context of HP the question I've asked at the top of this column: after being exposed to such withering criticism, does HP's board of directors have the right and perhaps the obligation to defend itself and by extension its shareholders, employees, and brand?
Tech industry journalist Michael Arrington of TechCrunch doesn't think so. In fact, Arrington says HP's attempts to tell its side of the story in response to strongly worded criticisms in the New York Times has amounted to "bullying" by HP. As he wrote in a post this morning on TechCrunch.com:
"If you're press and you're criticizing H.P., watch out," Arrington writes. "They'll hit you back, and keep hitting until you're done.
"Those of us in the news business love to cat fight occasionally, and I've taken more than a few jabs at the New York Times over the years. But this is different. It smells like bullying, and I don't like it one bit."
Those are some heavy charges—let's take a look at a couple of them:
First of all, bullying. Really now—"bullying?" I don't know where Arrington grew up, but my sense of "bullying" carries quite a different context than a company standing up for itself and trying to articulate its position, its philosophies, and its decisions, particularly when under blistering attacks from a media community that can itself be absurdly thin-skinned and far too quick to play the card of righteous indignation.
HP's new board chairman, Ray Lane, did indeed write a strongly worded letter to the New York Times but if Lane attempted to do any "bullying" with it, then the object of his aggression was surely not the media but rather former HP CEO Mark Hurd.
As I wrote the other day in a column called Global CIO: In Oracle Trial, HP Might Pay Higher Price Than SAP:
That's why new HP chairman Lane lashed out at Hurd in his public letter, saying Hurd "violated the trust of the board by repeatedly lying to them in the course of an investigation into his conduct" and that Hurd "violated numerous elements of HP's Standards of Business Conduct" and "demonstrated a serious lack of integrity and judgment." (End of excerpt.)
That's sure as heck tough talk, but it's hardly bullying—and it is surely not any attempt to bully the media.
Then there's Arrington's melodramatic and overwrought contention that "If you're press and you're criticizing H.P., watch out. They'll hit you back, and keep hitting until you're done."
Oh really now? If what Arrington says is true, then why is he daring to speak out against HP, knowing that the result will be that, in his own words, "They'll hit you back, and keep hitting until you're done"?
This is utter nonsense. This is the umpire pretending that 50,000 fans come to the ballpark to see him call balls and strikes. This is the frustrated fan who so desperately wants to be noticed that he jumps over the railing onto the field and runs around because he thinks that makes him a player.
It's also one of the reasons why so many people in this country distrust the media: we are all too often so full of ourselves, full of accusations, and full of self-righteousness that we don't understand or even recognize our hypocrisy that jumps to attention when somebody else says we might not have all the answers.
I have written some complimentary things about HP, and some scathing things about HP. Afterward, I've never felt threatened or pressured by HP, and not in my wildest fantasies would I assume that "They'll hit [me] back, and keep hitting until [I'm] done."
Now, maybe that's because no one reads what I write so HP doesn't even bother sending its beat-down squad out to silence me. Maybe, maybe not.
One last item from Arrington's post deserves mention: he describes a flap that's come up about a columnist for the New York Times who's recently written two intensely critical columns about HP's board. The second of those columns was a wicked attack on new HP CEO Leo Apotheker and is based on the columnist's contention that Apotheker, back when he was a top executive at SAP, had extensive knowledge of how an SAP subsidiary was illegally downloading archrival Oracle's software. The column also discusses Apotheker's role in the upcoming damages portion of Oracle's lawsuit against SAP for that downloading.
As it turns out, this columnist—Joe Nocera—who thrashed Apotheker for his transgressions against Oracle is in fact engaged to the director of communications for the law firm representing Oracle in that legal battle against SAP. But Nocera says he only learned about his fiancee's connection to Oracle after the column was written, and that he surely would not have written it had he known about his colossal conflict of interest.
What's Arrington's take on that humiliating predicament for the Times, which one could argue should be grounds for being fired? Does Arrington level at the columnist the same level of cynicism he so freely wields at HP? Not so much:
"Nocera's conflict of interest aside (this is the gotcha type of conflict, not something that likely had any real impact on what he wrote), one thing is clear," Arrington writes. "If you're press and you're criticizing H.P., watch out. They'll hit you back, and keep hitting until you're done."
Got it? Ray Lane defends the company whose board he chairs, and he's "bullying" the poor little sissies in the media. But some columnist trashes a guy who's a key figure in a high-profile lawsuit in which his fiancee's law firm represents the other side, well, that's simply "not something that likely had any real impact on what he wrote."
Arrington and his TechCrunch brand have become influential forces in the IT industry, and part of the proof is that AOL just acquired his company for a reported $25 million. So I take my hat off to him for his entrepreneurship and hard work and for the audience impact he's generated.
But I hope he takes a long hard look at what he wrote today about HP, because while it's wrong, it's not just wrong—it's also a disservice to his audiences and an embarrassment to his otherwise solid reputation.
Bob Evans is senior VP and director of
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