Best Buy subplot: what happens when the tweeter-in-chief resigns

Former Best Buy CEO Brian Dunn

An interesting subplot in the unfolding Best Buy saga illustrates how the Richfield-based electronics giant is attempting to separate its corporate voice from that of its very active blogging and tweeting former CEO, Brian Dunn.

When Best Buy announced Dunn’s resignation last week, the company wasted no time in erasing as much of the tainted CEO’s fingerprints as it could. Following Dunn’s departure, his prolific tweets @bbyCEO and his blog “Brian’s Whiteboard” were wiped off the company’s public website  and Twitter.

His personal page remains on Facebook, with a timeline that intermingles parental posts about his son’s high-school sports exploits with Best Buy-related developments. But old links from Facebook to his Best Buy blogs result in the familiar error message: “404 –File not found.”

Dunn has also launched his own personal Twitter handle, @briandunn, where the Wall Street Journal reported he’s been tweeting with supporters, including basketball legend Magic Johnson.

So far, the erasure of Dunn’s corporate posts does not signal a change in Best Buy’s current path or previously announced restructuring plan. In fact, the company recently issued a list of specific stores to be closed, including five in the Twin Cities area.

Dunn had made himself something of an example for other tweet-shy chief executives, bylining a piece in 2010 for the Harvard Business Review: “Best Buy’s CEO on Learning to Love Social Media.” There, Dunn warned that executives who avoid the new communication tools put themselves and their companies at risk of “not being in the conversation at all. Over time, that can be fatal to a business.”

But now, it’s Dunn himself who is out of the conversation with the erasure of his Best Buy social media persona.

Tweets and blogs are an easy way for a corporate executive to connect directly with investors, customers and employees, in the process humanizing a CEO and adding color to a corporate strategy behind the numbers. The online conversation also can show how a corporate executive’s thinking evolves over time and how he or she responds to changes in the business and the economy.

But what happens when the tweeter-in-chief resigns under a cloud?

 “We want to clear the platform, have one CEO, one voice,” said Ron Hutcheson, a public relations consultant with Hill+Knowlton Strategies and spokesman for the Best Buy board of directors. “We’re not trying to obliterate the other guy,” he said, explaining that the former CEO’s blogs and tweets were not singled out. The company pulls posts of “any employee who blogs for Best Buy” after her or she leaves, he added.

Many of Dunn’s tweets were typical transitory flashes, touting a new store opening, connecting with a customer or congratulating an employee for a good job. But some posts, including video interviews and blogs, were more substantive, explaining company strategy, expanding on quarterly earnings, or helping investors, employees and customers understand the company direction.

Arguably, a Best Buy blog post from a junior marketer attending a trade show who then moves to another company is in a different category than a post from the CEO expanding on the company’s turnaround plans. So should a company’s social media policy treat them the same?

“We haven’t seen this happen before,” observed Darrel Heaps, CEO of Q4Web Systems, a Toronto-based firm that advises companies on web and social media strategies focused on shareholders and investors.

Eliminating the past posts of a departed CEO — particularly one leaving under a cloud, such as Dunn did — “makes sense,” Heaps observed. “The easy corporate decision is just to remove all of it.  Better to overreact, and eliminate any risk” that a journalist would read old posts “and make color commentary” about Dunn’s resignation, Heaps argued.

He also said he doesn’t see any disclosure issues arising from Best Buy’s actions, because it’s likely Dunn’s posts did not concern material information that was not disclosed elsewhere by the company.

Heaps also praised a statement from Best Buy spokesman Hutcheson affirming that the interim CEO will continue to blog and tweet. “Obviously, Best Buy sees value” in continuing the practice, Heaps added.  “The value of all this stuff is the timeliness and relevancy about what they are talking about today.”

The Best Buy case points to a gap at most companies that lack a social media policy “that would talk to these transitions,” said marketing professor Nora Ganim Barnes of the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. “Crisis management should be part of every social media policy. Very few companies have them.”

Barnes, who has studied the use of social media by Fortune 500 companies, said Best Buy “did the right thing” by expunging Dunn’s past tweets and blog posts. “The company was in a crisis situation and wanted to quickly move away from that person.”

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