When an opinion editor gets fired for publishing an opinion

How can organisations prepare for their employees to have differing opinions and still protect their reputation?

James Bennet was forced to resign from the New York Times

When it comes to handling controversies, there’s usually one move in a company’s playbook that management hopes will ultimately end the outrage.

A resignation.

Once a staff member at a company is brought to the point of having to lose their job due to a misdeed or controversial event, the company hopes that the public, having had their pound of flesh, will move on to the next outrage.

It happens across almost every industry. Politicians, perhaps, are usually the most likely to pay for a misdeed with their employment.  We’ve also seen it happen with banks and other institutions.

Sometimes people don’t get fired, such as what we’ve seen in a number of religious institutions after people in positions of authority have been found guilty of failing to protect children entrusted to their care.

However, as I’ve written about previously, what’s increasingly happening these days is a constant uprising of people furious about what someone has said or written and the demand that the person responsible gets ‘cancelled’.

All that said, I never thought I’d see it happen at the New York Times. One of journalism’s most famous mastheads, The Times has a reputation for formidable journalism.  And, if the paper (or at least its readership) leans in any political direction, it surely leans to the left.

The Times doesn’t just cover news though.  Like most other newspapers they have an extensive opinion section that was headed, until today, by James Bennet. 

Bennet has previously attracted controversy for events involving more conservative opinion writers. For example, when he hired right-leaning columnist Bret Stephens from the Wall Street Journal, it was met by a lot of outrage. But this was just the entrée.

Unfortunately for Bennet, he agreed to publish an opinion piece by Senator Tom Cotton which advocated for a strong military response to domestic protesters (as mused by the USA President, Donald Trump).  You can still read the op-ed here.

The response to this piece was massively negative.  More than 800 New York Times employees signed a letter protesting the op-ed’s publication.  According to The Times:

Dozens of Times employees objected to the Op-Ed on social media, despite a company policy that instructs them not to post partisan comments or take sides on issues… more than 160 employees planned a virtual walkout for Friday morning.

Despite on one hand defending the publication of the op-ed (saying that, despite people finding the arguments espoused as ‘objectionable’ they still represent a newsworthy part of the current debate) this still ultimately led to the sacking of the op-ed editor.

It’s somewhat similar to what happened over at The Guardian back in March when columnist Suzanne Moore wrote a piece discussing women and trans issues and was met with outrage by readers and fellow staff members, leading to over 300 Guardian staff members signing a letter claiming the paper was ‘transphobic’ for allowing the column to be published.  While I believe the Guardian op-ed editor was not fired, it has all the hallmarks of a controversy that could’ve ended up in the employee being ‘cancelled’.

While this raises legitimate questions about the approach of newspapers to publishing multiple views and opinions, it also is warning to corporate communications and views espoused by their employees.

What do you do if someone who works at your company shares a controversial op-ed?  Or likes a tweet that’s ‘out of step’ with your prescribed values.

Do you have a crisis communications plan should your employee re-tweet a controversial opinion and one of your clients gets angry?

Because it’d be great to get some clarity over this before someone in your company has to resign.