Smart CEO Apologies Require Strategic Communications

Editor’s Note: The excerpt below is from an op-ed by PRSA Chair and CEO Rosanna M. Fiske, APR, which was published Oct. 6, 2011, in the Harvard Business Review. A full version of the opinion piece can be read here.

Last month when Netflix CEO Reed Hastings hit “send” on his now infamous “I messed up” blog post and summarily announced the formation of the “Qwikster” business to run Netflix’s DVD network, a new chapter in botched crisis communications was written.

After more than 27,000 comments, significant customer backlash, and a startling drop in the company’s stock price, we can finally step back and discern several lessons from Hastings’ communications faux pas.

Chief among them is how business leaders can use strategic communications techniques to stop adding fuel to the digital-age fires. Throwing half-hearted apologies at an issue will just exacerbate a festering problem — and people will view it as an obvious and empty attempt to quiet the masses.

Case in point: Netflix’s 11th-hour blog post and apology video. While the CEO smiled throughout the video, customers rightly questioned its intention. Overall, the communications were vague, bizarre, and left customers wondering: “Are you really apologizing to me, or are you doing this because someone else told you to?”

Here’s where this crisis situation failed: Most reputation blows require a clear, strategic message, explaining two things: (1) what went wrong, and (2) what you are doing to rectify the situation. At the same time, remember to “stay above the fray”, as corporate communications expert Paul Argenti advises in The Financial Times. That is, don’t allow feelings of regret to cloud your best communications judgment.

Read the rest in the Harvard Business Review.

About the author

Keith Trivitt

Leave a Comment