Former CBS News head under fire for mishandling empire

Whether they’re in politics or pop culture, public figures can get the crazies if they follow their approval ratings. In the 24-hour news cycle, Monday’s hero can instantly become Tuesday’s heavy.

Sir Howard Stringer has been shrewder than any other CEO in handling the media — appropriately so, since he was once president of CBS News. Lately, however, even the Brit has taken a pounding from the media for his supposed mishandling of his Sony empire.

The new revisionist thinking about Stringer has surprised me. Given his six-year run as Sony CEO, he has been revered as the only Westerner to preside over an Asian empire. In interviews he’s been the master of the droll denial. He understands when to be candid and when to be cunning.

Lately, however, Howard the Cool has been described as Howard the Cranky. According to the think pieces, Stringer has failed his mission to turn Sony around. Further, despite the company’s claims of stability and security, hackers have made Sony a favorite target, stealing information from more than 100 million user accounts, including passwords, email addresses and other items. Hackers seem to take turns boasting about their Sony forays.

While all this has caused Stringer to simmer, his legions of corporate attorneys have imposed constraints on his comments. His defenders point out that though Sony has been vulnerable, the company at least was prompt in acknowledging break-ins. Citigroup, by contrast, waited as long as three weeks before acknowledging breaches affecting 200,000 customers, claiming “internal investigations” caused the stall. The Senate Banking Committee is looking into all that, having found that twice as many accounts were affected than first disclosed.

The cops last week arrested an individual who’s part of a group of hackers that call themselves Anonymous, but Sony’s CEO is far from anonymity. With all his corporate clout, he is still very publicly at the mercy of the yen as well as the earthquakes that have ravaged the Japanese economy. All of this has magnified the level of corporate intrigue that confronts Stringer or any multinational hierarch.

So should Sir Howard be doing better? His allies point out that Sony’s operating profit is a stalwart $2.4 billion (compared with a huge loss two years ago) and all his key divisions are generating profits. Last week Forbes.-com reported that consumer ratings of Sony brands have taken a strongly positive bounce since the relaunch of the PlayStation Network, adding that “the company has finally managed to reclaim some of the losses it received in brand perception.”

Despite the range of Sony techno-products, the division Stringer covets most is film — indeed, he probably is the only chieftain of a multinational who actually enjoys seeing movies. Most media moguls complain about high risks and low margins, but Sir Howard actually volunteers as chairman of the American Film Institute.

“Stringer is a man who is faithful to his responsibilities,” says one man who knows him well. “That’s why he continues to support AFI and that’s also why, while he’s almost 70, he continues his reign at Sony. It’s also why he served in Vietnam literally weeks after becoming an American citizen.”

So has Sir Howard become cranky? I haven’t spent time with him recently so I can’t testify, but I would be very surprised if he’d lost his keen wit. I remember having a beer with him once at a famous bar when, upon noticing my choice, he abruptly changed his mind about his own murky brew. When I looked away, he deftly switched them.

I guess I looked surprised, because he said, “Haven’t you ever heard of CEO entitlement?”

At least he paid.

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