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“Be Ruthless”: Crisis Expert’s Advice for Warren Buffett

Aaron Task
Editor in Chief
Fin - Daily Ticker - US

Berkshire Hathaway's annual meeting is always a big deal, but this year's confab takes on extra importance for its legendary chairman Warren Buffett as the saga over David Sokol's resignation continues.

Earlier this week, Berkshire's audit committee released its review of Sokol's trading in Lubrizoil prior to Berkshire's purchase of the company in March. The committee found the Sokol violated Berkshire policies on ethics and insider trading, as well as "the duty of candor."

"His remark to Mr. Buffett in January, revealing only that he owned some Lubrizol stock, did not tell Mr. Buffett what he needed to know," the audit committee declared. "In the context of Mr. Buffett's question how Mr. Sokol came to know Lubrizol, its effect was to mislead."

In sum, the report confirmed what most observers believed when reports of Sokol's trading in Lubrizoil first emerged. (See: Did Buffett Blow It? The Sokol Story Doesn't Add Up )

But many questions remain about Warren Buffett's behavior regarding the Sokol affair, including why he accepted Sokol's resignation rather than firing the executive when the truth about his Lubrizoil trades came to light.

This weekend, the "Oracle of Omaha" will have a chance to answer these and related questions — something Buffett should do -- says crisis communications expert Paul Argenti, a professor of corporate communications at Dartmouth's Tuck School.

"There is some question about [Buffett's] reputation as a result of his inability to speak openly about the Sokol affair so far," Argenti says. "[Buffett] needs to say he doesn't condone [Sokol's] behavior and move beyond the legal stage…he needs to be just as ruthless from a public relations and reputation standpoint."

Argenti believes Buffett will do the 'right' thing this weekend and discuss the Sokol matter, which would be a change of course.

When he announced the resignation of the former NetJet CEO and potential successor on March 30, Buffett declared: "If questioned about this matter in the future, I will simply refer the questioner back to this release."

If he stands by that curious strategy this weekend, Buffett will lose his place as "the person we turn to as paragon of ethical leadership," Argenti says — assuming Buffett still holds that mantle.

Stay tuned for additional coverage.

Aaron Task is the host of The Daily Ticker. You can follow him on Twitter at @atask or email him at altask@yahoo.com