When Jeff Zucker abruptly resigned as CNN president on Wednesday over his ongoing personal relationship with the network’s chief marketing officer, Allison Gollust, the company made a point of emphasizing that Gollust herself would remain on the job.
Indeed, John Stankey, CEO of CNN parent company AT&T, on Friday sidestepped a question from CNBC’s “Squawk Box” on Gollust’s future. “Allison, her circumstances are different, and I don’t want to get involved in discussing her situation,” he said.
Still, many insiders told TheWrap they can’t see how Gollust — who served for nearly two decades as one of Zucker’s main lieutenants and whom NBC News reported was at the top of an internal list to potentially replace Zucker should he retire — can continue to play a major role in the network going forward.
“I can’t imagine it is tenable,” one former CNN senior executive told TheWrap, noting that the bad optics of Gollust staying on. “Doesn’t it give him a continued ability to influence the organization, given how much power she had there and how close he and Allison are? Like when a baseball manager is thrown out by the umpires but he hides in the tunnel to the dugout whispering instructions to his bench coach.”
Gollust and CNN spokespeople did not immediately return requests for comment on this story.
There are likely no grounds to dismiss Gollust outright, as Stankey suggested on Friday. WarnerMedia’s Standards of Business Conduct, updated after AT&T’s 2016 acquisition, state that “employees must not hire or supervise (directly or indirectly) someone with whom they have a personal relationship” — and must “inform the HR department in advance” of starting any relationship with a staffer they supervise. But Gollust has been dating her boss, not a subordinate, so she does appear to have violated any company rules.
Still, it’s clear that the exposure of the romance — and Zucker’s ouster — could cripple her ability to function effectively in a senior leadership role. And in the current climate, AT&T won’t risk having a public relations fiasco as it seeks regulatory approval to spin off WarnerMedia and merge with Discovery in Q2.
Shortly after Zucker’s resignation announcement on Wedneday, a CNN spokesperson told TheWrap, “Gollust is the only person who could run the company tomorrow.”
But within hours, WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar named three other CNN executives — Michael Bass, Amy Entelis and Ken Jautz — as interim leaders of the network, with Gollust now reporting to them.
One area where Gollust’s integrity may be questioned is over her statement on Wednesday that her “relationship [with Zucker] changed during COVID” — since many media insiders have stated that the pair’s romance began well before 2020. Zucker and his wife Caryn Nathanson separated in 2018 and later divorced; Gollust is also divorced from her husband, Tradewell Markets president William Hult. The couple have two children, Olivia and Ava.
“For her to issue a statement saying she’s staying and that this relationship happened over COVID is really weird,” one media veteran told TheWrap. “Gollust’s statement is not a good look for her as a high-powered executive: She’s a grownup.”