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Why Ackman needs media training: Widlitz

Bill Ackman
Jonathan Fickles | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Bill Ackman

Bill Ackman really should consider getting some media training.

Yesterday, the hedge fund manager of Pershing Square—J.C. Penney's largest shareholder—did it again when he issued a letter to his fellow board members calling for a speedier process to identify a new CEO. He suggested that the board could find a new leader within 30 to 45 days.

The letter, which expressed his frustration with the CEO selection process, also of course, ended up in the hands of the media. In the letter, Ackman said he had asked retail legend and former Penney chairman and CEO Allen Questrom to return as chairman.


Investors' minds started wandering. The possibility (key word—possibility) that Questrom might save the day and return to the company sent the stock and investor hopes up.

Of course, Questrom later told CNBC that he hadn't agreed to return to Penney, but he told Ackman that he would consider it with the right conditions, which he said included having the right CEO.

Penney's shares are down about 3 percent Friday, shedding about half of Thursday's gains and putting it among the biggest laggards on the S&P 500.

Making matters worse, Ackman followed up Friday with a second letter demanding a board meeting and a new chairman.

(Read more: Ackman demand JCP board meeting, new chairman)

If you have followed Penney's media soap opera closely, you know by now the "Bill Ackman TV trade" is a losing one. Let's rewind the tape:

May 2012: After J.C. Penney reported a same-store sales decline of 18.9 percent. Ackman appeared on CNBC claiming "sales have bottomed." Really? The following quarter same-store sales worsened.

November 2012: After reporting a same-store sales decline of 26 percent, Ackman appears on CNBC reiterating the turnaround story and suggested that the retailer hand out "pins" with secret promotional codes on the back to perhaps save the holiday season. Nope. See same-store sales decline of 31.7 percent.

April 2013: Shortly after Ron Johnson's demise as CEO, Ackman speaks at a conference and says JCP is worth $75 a share. Not exactly the 10 bagger he previously called for but still "Fantasy Island." I do not believe the upcoming earnings report will support the fantasy case.

As the old expression goes, Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me.

On Thursday, before Ackman's lastest salvo, the board shot back at Ackman's decision to release the letter to the media, calling his actions "disruptive and counterproductive."

(Read more: JC Penney board erupts into fight over next CEO)

The retailer has told CNBC it has "no statement at this time."

But this back and forth, sounds like a great working environment that will surely tempt a quality CEO. Thanks again Bill.

Here is the reality: Ackman hand-picked Johnson, the leader who put the nail in Penney's coffin by taking discounts away from the consumer against everyone's advice.

From my point of view, Ullman did shareholders a favor by stepping in this past April and starting to do damage control by reassuring vendors. To pull the one person vendors trust out of his seat before holiday, would be a mistake.

Ackman once said on CNBC "time is your friend." In this case, I would agree.

Stacey Widlitz is the president of SW Retail Advisors, a consulting firm with offices in London and New York. She advises institutional investors as well as retailers with a need for International expertise in the consumer sector. Stacey spent 12 years as a senior sell-side Analyst at Pali Capital, Fulcrum Partners, SG Cowen & UBS. She is also a CNBC analyst. Follow her on Twitter at @StaceyRetail.