Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Decisions, Decisions

The world of PR lives by its own happy rules. Take the press release Merrill Lynch (MER) put out yesterday to announce Stan O’Neal’s official parting. It said (with what would be a straight face, if press releases had faces) that the esteemed Chairman and CEO had “decided to retire.”

In some legal hair-splitting way, this might be a true statement. Once O’Neal and the board high-fived on calling his embarrassing ouster a retirement (both for public consumption and under the firm’s compensation and benefit plans), he sensibly chose to take that route.

But whether Mr. O'Neal negotiated for the "decided to retire" language or it sprang from the head of some PR genius, the wording suffers from trying too hard. Did Merrill think none of us were watching last week as the board dragged O’Neal toward the exit door like bouncers evicting a drunk? Maybe they assumed we were all fixated on the imminent release of Saw IV.

It's telling that in the 8-K filing (to which the company attached O'Neal's severance agreement), Merrill spoke more carefully, sparing us the “decided” part and stating simply that Mr. O’Neal “has retired.”

Of course, we all know that in Proxyland people rarely get fired. Every day, however, CEOs are seized by sudden urges to retire long before retirement age, or wild impulses to run off and “pursue other interests." Maybe some PR people should follow their example.

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