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The Days of Awe at Disney

The Dick Cook/Bob Iger drama played out this past week on a much bigger stage than mine did, but, it sure feels familiar.

Timing and 20/20 hindsight are everything.

Years ago, I’d flown back East to spend Yom Kippur with my parents. I was in temple, in the midst of some heavy atonement (or as one of my best friends always says about Yom Kippur, “when Frankie annually apologizes for the duties of her job”) when my pager started a steady hum.

Since my mother’s wrath is greater than that of any industry executive, I waited until we’d left synagogue to pick up the messages. They were from my boss, who ran a division of a major media company. At least he did, up until that moment. His NY boss had just called to say he was flying out the following day to catch up with him and our #2 person, and they should ensure their schedules were clear.

Real clear, if you catch my drift.

My boss’s voicemail: “(#2) and I are getting shit-canned tomorrow. No one knows. I need you to take the next flight back to deal with the fallout.”

Which, of course, I did. They were out, effective immediately. One replacement was named (and fired quietly 10 months later); the other job stayed open for months. The higher-ups offered no explanation, so the media speculated and staff freaked out. The fallout set our division back two years.

As a few of us got wasted, nauseous and weepy at an El Coyote sendoff a few weeks later, I turned to my now-ex-boss and asked, “How did you know?”

He was a company guy with a track record of success in other jobs; his contract wasn’t up. The N.Y. suits came to L.A. regularly, particularly as the weather got colder. And only two weeks before, we’d launched a major project that, although somewhat controversial, was smart and innovative – a project for which my ex had spent a lot of money and lured additional hires from competitors. All we had on the project was preliminary audience research, which said nothing, good or bad. And while we knew my ex’s style was different from that of his higher-ups, they knew it had won him enormous loyalty among staff, partners and clients.

My ex proceeded to spin a storyline worthy of the best "Law & Order" episode. He didn’t realize he was on thin ice, he admitted, until that phone call. But he started remembering moments when, during discussions of plans and decisions, his N.Y. boss had distanced himself. And that this N.Y. guy had a track record of pulling the plug on other people and projects with little concern over the money it would waste and the PR turmoil it would spark (our new project, too, was cancelled as part of that day’s actions). And soon after his exit, people came forward to tell my ex how a handful of very powerful players elsewhere in the company, with little or no connection to our division but with a pipeline to the top, were quietly lobbying for a change – in one person’s case, to take the spotlight off their own division’s failings.

Now, if the N.Y. guy had been smart, he would’ve timed the firings to Yom Kippur itself: when half the building was empty, the industry was focused on religious observation and lox and the story would get old before everyone returned to work.

The Dick Cook/Bob Iger drama played out this past week on a much bigger stage than mine did, but from a distance, it sure feels familiar.

They obviously gave more thought to timing. We’ve learned that Iger fired Cook on Tuesday and the announcement was made Friday afternoon, just as many were leaving work early for the traditional Rosh Hashanah Eve dinner and the service that starts at sundown. This strategy offered Cook and/or Iger the chance to bury the story while also letting the industry thrash it over through a weekend … and, most likely, around the lobbies of area synagogues.

The irony of such a major change at the start of a New Year can’t be missed.

While much industry noise is being made about the fact that no successor was named in the Cook announcement, that’s a pretty common PR tactic.

You want to get the unpleasant news out of the way first, let the dust settle and encourage people to start looking toward what’s next. It also gives Disney management a few days of tea leaf-reading time: to gauge the industry reaction and concerns that, in turn, help frame the larger messaging around the new hire’s announcement. Which, if they’re smart, will appropriately address reasons behind their perceived need for change.

My former boss went on to successfully run a major media corporation, where he’s introduced a number of innovative concepts that are now industry standards. The guy who did the firing hung on at our company a while longer, got shit-canned himself and vanished from the industry. For several years, I couldn’t think of the High Holy Days without recalling that corporate bloodbath. I’ve got a feeling that it’s going to take some time too for our friends at Disney before the Jewish term for this very week – Yamim Noraim, or the Days of Awe – has just the traditional meaning.

Flackback will explore the art and artifice of entertainment PR.  The author has 25 years' corporate experience and has finessed everything from a celebrity's drunken surprise marriage to his best friend's 16-year-old daughter to a 20-minute advance warning that her company's president was being fired. And she sees little difference between these scenarios.  She's chosen candor over a byline.