Call it the battle of the flacks. In this corner, James D. Robinson III, the American Express Co. chairman who has been called the Teflon CEO. In that corner, the PR staff of Fortune magazine, who knew they had a hot story to flog.
The shots started flying at about 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 5, when the magazine faxed copies of its story, headlined "The Coup at American Express," to major newspapers and wire services. Within hours, AmEx' savvy public relations staff--armed with any advice they may have gotten from the boss's wife, high-profile PR maven Linda Robinson--was circulating the corporate line on Robinson's resignation. AmEx landed a heavy counterpunch when the Sunday New York Times ran a story quoting board member Rawleigh Warner Jr. to the effect that Robinson was orchestrating his own departure. By Monday, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, which interviewed Robinson and directors over the weekend, had Robinson's description of how he initiated his own exit. The message: no coup here.
That is not exactly the case, as BUSINESS WEEK has learned. But the first stories could have been far tougher on the AmEx chairman if the company hadn't been so quick to limit the damage. "They were quite successful in persuading journalists that this was a process that Robinson was in control of and not a revolution--therefore, not a big story," says Richard W. Edelman, president of Edelman Public Relations Worldwide, a big Chicago and New York PR shop.
WHY HIDE? Investors, however, gripe about the 2 1/2-month gap between the board's decision to replace Robinson and the news leak. And several PR pros believe having a press conference in September would have made for a smoother transition.
A secret battle may have pitted Robinson against some of his own directors. "Someone at AmEx wanted us to know," a Fortune spokeswoman says. Given that, AmEx flacks did O.K. Says Irving Schenkler, who teaches PR at New York University's business school: "They tried to retain a bit of dignity for Robinson." They succeeded.