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.

To learn about effective employee relations, order a copy of PR News' Employee Communications Guidebook.  

Follow Matthew Schwartz: @mpsjourno1




About Matthew Schwartz

Group Editor, PR News: Matthew Schwartz is group editor of PR News, the leading source of trends, how-to content and best practices for PR professionals. Matthew leads the editorial strategy for PR News’ premium content products—including its weekly newsletter—and for its digital presence. Matthew was editor of PR News from 2003-2005. Prior to returning to PR News, Matthew was a reporter for Crain’s BtoB and Media Business magazines, where he covered business marketers and media companies. He was also editor of BMA Buzz, a biweekly email newsletter covering B2B marketing, advertising and social media, and contributing writer to Advertising Age Custom. Matthew has helped to launch blogs on behalf of ZoomInfo and direct marketing agency The Kern Organization. He also spent a few years in cable-news precincts, working as a writer/producer at CNN and Fox News Channel.

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