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Licht’s Rocky Tenure As CNN’s CEO Provides Crisis And Leadership Lessons
Edward Segal, Crisis Management Expert Edward Segal, Crisis Management Expert
Washington, DC
Tuesday, June 20, 2023


CNN, which usually reports the news about crises, is going through a crisis itself.

"Chris Licht, the embattled chief executive and chairman of CNN, whose brief one-year tenure at the network was stained by a series of severe missteps, departed the company on Wednesday," the news organization reported earlier this month.

"I met with Chris, and he will be leaving CNN," David Zaslav, the chief executive of parent company Warner Bros. Discovery, told CNN employees at the start of the network's daily editorial meeting," according to the network.

Licht's brief and rocky tenure at the news outlet provides several lessons for corporate leaders about avoiding and responding to a crisis.

Don't Make Yourself The Story

"As Licht said in his response to the Atlantic article, a leader should never make himself the story. Unfortunately, that's what he did," Debra Caruso Marrone , president of DJC Communications, said via email.

"Having read the entire Atlantic article (as long as it was), Licht poured his heart out to reporter Tim Alberta and allowed Alberta too much access to his private thoughts and even his close relationships with people like his personal trainer," Marrone observed.

Apologize Quickly

After the article was published, Licht apologized for creating a distraction for his company and its journalists, saying, "CNN is not about me. I should not be in the news unless it's taking arrows for you."

Followership Is Necessary For Leadership

"Perhaps Licht did not do enough to build internal followers and supporters," Laurie R. Barkman, an adjunct professor of entrepreneurship at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business, observed via email.

"Unlike former CNN president Jeffrey Zucker, who [had] an office on a CNN newsroom floor, Licht separated himself from the network's journalists.

"Was this foreshadowing for the figurative separation Licht would experience with key journalists? Anchor Christiane Amanpour, among others, voiced discontent in some of Licht's programming decisions. It is common practice for new CEOs to hire executives with whom they have worked previously. These are trusted, tested relationships that can add value to a new leadership team," she noted.

"The challenge is if you don't invest enough in the troops who you need to follow you into battle," Barkman warned.

Take Time To Make Changes

For any "new leader, particularly one succeeding a popular predecessor…become a member of a tribe before you try to lead it," Ephraim Schachter, president of Schachter Consulting, said via email.

"Rather than building rapport, trust and relationship capital with his new company, Licht is reported to have criticized their work, telling them that CNN had lost its way. He physically separated himself, having little contact with staff, even moving offices to a separate floor. This is a recipe for inviting contempt, not building loyalty," Schachter observed.

When Everything Is Changing, You Can't Change Everything

Licht "entered the company with a mandate for change. In his first six months, he conducted a company-wide business review that led to a series of sweeping changes," Carnegie Mellon University's Barkman said.

"Many changes were met with skepticism and challenges, such as shuttering the CNN+ streaming service (originally hailed as a future growth platform for the company). He also fired key CNN journalists, including Brian Stelter, the network's chief media correspondent and anchor of Reliable Sources. While many of these changes may have helped the financials, they likely created a foundational shift in the psyche of the staff," she pointed out.

Don't Let A Crisis Simmer

A crisis can only get worse over time, not better.

Once they know there is a problem— or that a problem is being caused by an employee or top executive—the board of directors or other appropriate corporate leaders should not wait to take decisive action.

"Warner Bros, Discovery has followed the crisis communication playbook to the letter by trying to move fast and get ahead of the story," Andy Barr, CEO and founder of the 10 Yetis Digital marketing agency, said in a statement from his company.

"Licht could have been left to limp on through his tenure as CEO of CNN, and the story would have dragged out. This would have attracted advertiser and shareholder unrest and eventually led to a share price fall, but the fast-paced nature of the decision should now give investors greater faith in the future direction of the company," he noted.

"This is a great example of decisive leadership by Warner Bros Discovery, but also another reason why CEOs need to remember that the truth always comes out, especially around emotive subjects such as politics. It will inevitably come out faster if you lose the faith of the workforce in your first few activities, actions and statements," Barr concluded.

Take Responsibility

"For a number of reasons, things didn't work out, and that's unfortunate," Zaslav told CNN staffers Wednesday, according to Darcy. "It's really unfortunate. And ultimately, that's on me. And I take full responsibility for that," Forbes reported.

An Apology May Not Be Enough

Saying that you are sorry for what you did or said that caused a crisis may not always be sufficient.

That certainly proved to be the case with Licht, whose departure from the network was announced.


Edward Segal is a crisis management expert, consultant and the bestselling author of the award-winning Crisis Ahead: 101 Ways to Prepare for and Bounce Back from Disasters, Scandals, and Other Emergencies (Nicholas Brealey). Order the book at https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0827JK83Q/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i0

Segal is a Leadership Strategy Senior Contributor for Forbes.com where he covers crisis-related news, topics and issues. Read his recent articles at https://www.forbes.com/sites/edwardsegal/?sh=3c1da3e568c5.

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