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Something Fishy About Arbitron CEO Change?

It certainly was all very quick

The sequence of events surrounding the resignation of Arbitron President/CEO Michael Skarzynski is strange, and you can bet the whole story hasn’t come out.

In its conference call with investors last Tuesday, CFO Sean Creamer and new President/CEO Bill Kerr led investors through the sequence of events that led to Skarzynski’s resignation and a subsequent new title for Kerr, who said his new duties began around 6 p.m. Monday the 11th.

The executives said that in his recent Capitol Hill testimony, Skarzynski “misspoke” about having been at a panel member’s home for Portable People Meter training; so I went back and re-read my notes from that hearing.

Skarzynski made the remark shortly after his prepared remarks ended and Q&A had begun. He was responding to a question from Chairman Edolphus Towns, D.-N.Y., who had asked why the company resisted suggestions from the Media Ratings Council and continued to roll out PPM without accreditation.

Skarzynski responded that the company didn’t feel the device was flawed and had an “extensive” training program in place to educate panelists, including coaches who go in the field and help new panelists. That’s when he said he recently had worked with panelists in a household in Prince George’s County, Md. I remember thinking at the time that it was strange for the head of the company to go to a panelist’s home for meter training.

Last week, Arbitron executives said company employees had indeed been at the home but that Skarzynski himself had not been there. When this was brought to the board’s attention, it dealt with matters quickly. They discussed it with Skarzynski, who, they said, agreed that company’s ethics policy had been violated; he then resigned. Arbitron notified the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, apologized and asked that the official record be corrected.

What executives haven’t said is how the error was brought to the board’s attention. My guess is an employee heard about it and told the board, which, in turn, wanted to get out in front of the issue and notify the committee, rather than risk having a reporter or someone else bring it to the committee’s attention.

But even so, the reaction seems dramatic, even extreme.

Skarzynski made a lot of changes in his nearly year-long tenure at Arbitron, which I’m sure brought him no friends there. It’s striking that the board, rather than embrace him or at least try to explain his intentions, pushed him off the plank of the pirate ship without even a cigarette.

Certainly, being untruthful to Congress is serious business. But was this a case of intentionally misleading legislators? Is he a liar; or did he just misspeak? Does this outcome fit the violation?

With so much criticism over PPM being directed toward Arbitron, and with the ratings field being newly contested by Nielsen, it’s easy to fill in the blanks with speculation. But I’m guessing that something else is going on beyond what we see, and that rather than being the first issue between Skarzynski and his employer, this Hill incident likely was the last of several.

Meanwhile, other than Arbitron’s statement that he agreed with the action, Skarzynski has been mum on the circumstances of his departure. He has not more clearly explained what happened, likely on the advice of an attorney.

And while Kerr sought to smooth the waters with Wall Street with talk of focusing on the core mission and getting the company through the transition, he said he anticipated no other changes “at this time.” All new company leaders say that; we’ll see if that holds true in a few months.