7 Business Lessons From the NPR Meltdown

Last Updated Mar 10, 2011 2:01 PM EST

7 Business Lessons From the NPR MeltdownThe CEO of National Public Radio, Vivian Schiller, was forced to resign yesterday on the heels of a scandal involving NPR's Senior VP and top fundraiser, Ron Schiller, who had also resigned.

The two Schillers are supposedly not related, but you never know.

Ron Schiller was videotaped, making racially charged remarks aimed at the Republican Party and the tea-party, by people posing as a Muslim organization interested in making a large donation to NPR.

What's fascinating is that this scandal is really a result of NPR's firing of award-winning and Pulitzer Prize-nominated author and journalist Juan Williams in October for, ironically, making racially charged remarks about Muslims on Fox News. You can't make this stuff up.

NPR admitted it had handled the Williams situation badly and forced out the executive who terminated Williams, Senior VP and news head Ellen Weiss. But that wasn't enough to stop a Republican Party movement to cut NPR's $430 million in federal funding because of its alleged liberal bias.

NPR's management meltdown - indeed, the entire series of events - provides a revealing set of lessons for every executive and business leader of nonprofit and for-profit companies alike:

7 Business Lessons From the NPR Meltdown

  1. Don't let bias affect your business. Everyone has bias, but when it gets in the way of prudent business sense and objectivity, that's a recipe for disaster.
  2. Don't make a spectacle of yourself. If it's not about something core to your business, the public eye is usually more illuminating than you want it to be. As a former Microsoft executive once told me, "These days, before I talk to the press, I weigh how much damage I can do versus the benefit."
  3. Politics doesn't belong in business. As I said about Glenn Beck's hiring of former Huffington Post CEO Betsy Morgan, "Unless your business is politics, keep politics out of your business." Yes, media companies seem to always have a political slant, but they still have to pay attention to the next lesson ...
  4. Know which side your bread is buttered on. If your major shareholders or, in this case, sources of funding, all share your political views, then fine, have at it. If not, don't be surprised when they pull the plug. There are always plenty of other places for them to take their money.
  5. Political correctness is a double-edged sword. Regardless of NPR's public statement, Williams was fired over political correctness. Ironically, that's exactly what he was warning about in the statement that got him fired, and that's also what brought down both Schillers. If you're going to publicly and controversially promote political correctness, you'd better be squeaky clean yourself. Frankly, I don't know anyone who fits that description.
  6. He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword. NPR never even talked with Williams before canning him. Their action was aggressive and extreme, especially considering that the man's body of work proves he's anything but a racist. If you're going to behave aggressively, expect others to react in kind.
  7. Where there's smoke there's fire. Two CEOs fired in three years, three top executives in five months, these are signs of deep-rooted dysfunctionality. As BNET blogger Erik Sherman points out, NPR's board needs to take a pretty hard look in the mirror.
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