PR Lessons from AOL Chief’s Latest Apology

AOL's Tim Armstrong

Foot, meet mouth. Tim Armstrong, the CEO of AOL, has done it again. He’s apologized for comments that showed a remarkable lack of empathy for AOL employees. He’s also done PR pros a favor when it comes to convincing C-level executives on why it’s important that they show some compassion for their employees.

The latest episode concerns Armstrong reversing an unpopular change in the media company’s employee benefits program and apologizing for singling out two families’ health care issues as a cause for those changes, according to several reports.

The New York Times said that AOL had recently altered its 401(k) program, switching its matching payments to one lump sum at year-end instead of throughout the year. The change would have disadvantaged AOL employees, especially those who left the company before Dec. 31.

During an internal call last Thursday discussing the new policy, Armstrong attributed the change to soaring medical costs associated with two families’ “distressed babies.”

Armstrong’s comment drew criticism from both AOL employees and the social sphere online. Then, in an email to employees on Saturday, Armstrong announced the company’s reversing the change to its 401(k) policy.

This is the second time that Armstrong has been forced to apologize for comments made during internal meetings.

In August during a meeting with AOL employees about the company’s Patch unit, Armstrong fired an employee who was taking photographs of him during the meeting. Armstrong later apologized. (AOL recently sold a majority stake in Patch to Hale Global.)

Armstrong’s latest remark holds two important lessons for communicators.

First, there really is no such thing as an “internal” meeting anymore. If a C-level executive says or does something that one employee doesn’t care for the information can be distributed on social channels instantaneously, with probable blowback for the C-suite.

The second and perhaps more important takeaway is how easy it is for C-level executives to alienate the rank-and-file employees with an insensitive comment.

It does C-level execs no favors for them to have a tin ear when it comes highly sensitive issues such as child care and health insurance benefits. And little good can come from demonizing babies to justify cutbacks in your 401(k) plan.

Despite the about-face in policy, Armstrong has added to his reputation as being the poster-child for eroding employee communications. His mistakes could be your savior.

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Follow Matthew Schwartz: @mpsjourno1