File photo: Tim Armstrong.

London - Tim Armstrong is known as a charismatic, impetuous CEO who fires from the hip. But even the AOL boss admits he has gone too far this time, apologising to an employee whose public sacking in front of hundreds of workers has become a viral internet hit.

Mr Armstrong, a former Google executive, had held a conference call with 1 000 employees at Patch, a local news network owned by technology giant AOL, to inform them that a major cultural change was on the way.

He broke off in order to reprimand Abel Lenz, Patch's creative director, who had been filming his boss. Mr Armstrong said: “Abel, put that camera down right now. Abel, you're fired! Out!” After five seconds of stunned silence, Mr Armstrong continued with his morale-boosting speech.

A recording of the brusque dismissal was leaked to blogs and news outlets, unleashing a backlash against Mr Armstrong - who was already struggling to reinvent AOL, the former internet darling, as a media company following a decade of decline.

But Mr Armstrong, called the “king of cocktail-napkin ideas” for his habit of bombarding executives with impulsive schemes, has issued an apology.

In a statement, sent to AOL employees, he said: “I am writing you to acknowledge the mistake I made last Friday during the Patch all-hands meeting when I publicly fired Abel Lenz. It was an emotional response at the start of a difficult discussion dealing with many people's careers and livelihoods. I am the CEO and leader of the organisation, and I take that responsibility seriously.”

Although there was no indication that Mr Lenz would be spared the axe, Mr Armstrong said he had contacted him to apologise. The CEO added that Mr Lenz “had been told previously not to record a confidential meeting, and he repeated that behaviour on Friday, which drove my actions.”

Patch insiders suggested that Mr Lenz had already been singled out because a “Patch 2.0” redesign which he spearheaded was thought to have failed. In 2011, Mr Armstrong promised to invest heavily in local news websites but despite spending more than $200m on Patch, the returns have been meagre and the service has been called a “ghost town”.

Mr Armstrong, credited with driving Google's advertising sales business before taking over AOL, is known for his brainstorms and instant decision-making. Executives are given three to six months to prove themselves before being shown the door.

He once asked his team to track down every single couple that ever met via an AOL chatroom. Executives have tried to talk Mr Armstrong out of instructions to send gifts of gumball machines and motorised scooters to advertising agencies.

“We had a three-strike rule with Tim,” said one former AOL executive. “He had to ask you three times before you did it.”

Yet Mr Armstrong is also said to be an inspirational figure, and “huge fun” to be around, adding to his unpredictability.

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