As Walkout Looms, Netflix ‘The Closer’ Crisis Spirals

ted sarandos and dave chappelle meet and greet on the red carpet

Netflix is in its second week of an internal-turned-external communication crisis over comedian Dave Chappelle’s latest comedy special, “The Closer.”

In it, Chappelle doubled down on dismissive remarks he's made about the transgender community.

LGBTQ advocates’ media response

The amplification of Chappelle’s views on gender identity on a monolithic streaming platform more than struck a nerve with the general public, human rights advocates and the media.

The National Black Justice Coalition’s executive director David Johns told Deadline that Netflix should pull the special and issue an apology.

“With 2021 on track to be the deadliest year on record for transgender people in the United States—the majority of whom are Black transgender people—Netflix should know better. Perpetuating transphobia perpetuates violence,” Johns wrote.

GLAAD also issued responses, including on Twitter, quote-tweeting an Oct. 6 piece by NPR TV critic Eric Deggans: “Dave Chappelle’s brand has become synonymous with ridiculing trans people and other marginalized communities.”

A walkout on the horizon

Netflix’s internal communication crisis bubbled quickly. Its trans employee resource group (ERG) is set to stage a walkout Oct. 20, after three employees were suspended for pushing back against the issue.

A tweet thread Oct. 6 from Netflix senior software engineer Terra Field that went viral criticized the company’s handling of the special. It appears that was the initial trigger for Netflix's seemingly retaliatory moves.

Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos refused to pull the special, defending the choice via an Oct. 8 internal memo to managers and leadership obtained by The Verge.

“We don’t allow titles on Netflix that are designed to incite hate or violence, and we don’t believe 'The Closer' crosses that line,” Sarandos wrote.

Field was suspended, along with two other Netflix employees, supposedly for attempting to attend a director-level meeting to which they were not invited. Field contends she did not know she was not invited. Netflix says it will issue guidance on its meeting attendance policy.

The employees were reinstated, but if Netflix execs continue to take a hard line on content like Chappelle’s, they risk “finding themselves on the wrong side of history,” says Tammy Tsang, co-founder of inclusive marketing agency AndHumanity, which advises clients using the JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion) framework.

Prepping for the walkout

Christina Ferraz, founder of thirty6five, works regularly with C-suites to ensure DEI-minded alignment between internal and external communication objectives. Netflix, Ferraz says, would benefit from a multi-tiered approach:

  • Prepare a public statement for the media coverage of the planned staff walkout.
  • Partner with a trans-led organization so that employees and leadership understand how anti-trans rhetoric promotes violence, and learn how to identify and address transphobia for internal stakeholders.
  • Measure risks not just for the bottom line, but also for future talent or content that has featured disparaging comments about a marginalized community.

ERGs' powerful role in internal communication

Netflix’s transgender ERG “has been meeting with executives for years to try and educate them about the impact of transphobic content,” per The Verge’s sources.

“As we’ve discussed through Slack, email, text, and everything in between, our leadership has shown us they do not uphold the values to which we are held,” organizers of the walkout wrote.

Responding internally

Jenny Wang, VP at Clyde Group, says Netflix should have taken the opportunity to truly “hear feedback and address the decision head-on.” Wang lays out potential avenues for Sarandos, including:

  • Sending an all-staff message reiterating the organization's commitment to DEI—including efforts currently underway for the affected community.
  • Apologizing for suspending the employees who protested.
  • Ensuring the company’s chief diversity officer engages in meaningful discussions with relevant associations/groups (such as GLAAD or NCTE).

Amid the rapid back-and-forth, Tsang suggests Netflix “pause, reach out to those who were harmed—in this case, trans people and the organizations that represent the community—and listen.”

Tsang urges Netflix share feedback from the “listening” step with Chappelle’s team, before ultimately taking down the show. She argues this is better coming from Sarandos, now that he’s “directly in the mix.”

Still, that would require convincing Sarandos it’s worth going against the bottom line—which could be hard given the co-CEO’s argument in his first memo was that Chappelle’s previous special, “Sticks and Stones,” was “also controversial” and “our most watched, stickiest, and most award-winning stand-up special to date.”

Drop the name-dropping

After his initial message to managers Oct. 8 failed to win the internal communication battle, Sarandos sent a second memo Oct. 11, this time to all staff, doubling down on the choice to keep “The Closer” streaming, while committing to “increasing diversity on the content team.” This seems to reflect the oft-cited DEI guidance that internal representation makes all the difference.

However, Ferraz points out, Sarandos also referenced Netflix shows that feature the LGBTQ community, including “Sex Education,” “Orange is the New Black,” “Control Z,” and standup specials from comedian Hannah Gadsby—who did not appreciate the name drop.

This was a bad move, Ferraz says.

“Living in a global information environment allows for people to respond quickly and publicly in a way that can backfire. By using Gadsby and LGBTQ+ artists as proof of Netflix’s approach to inclusivity, Sarandos weaponized their queer identities against the transgender community,” Ferraz argues.

Time for a redo?

By now, it would be best if Sarandos recognizes his initial crisis response was a poor one, says Ferraz. “When an initial crisis response is received poorly by the public, the best recourse is to address the public with a mea culpa,” she notes.

Ferraz adds, “We can’t expect everyone to always get it right—especially if they have never interacted with people from a different background, experience or culture. But what we can do is use these mistakes as learning opportunities to be better human beings and steward a more inclusive culture for everyone.”

Update, Oct. 20: On the evening before the planned walkout, Sarandos acknowledged he should have taken several of the steps Ferraz, Wang and Tsang recommended, telling The Hollywood Reporter, "I screwed up those communications in two ways. One of them was, I should have first and foremost acknowledged in those emails that a group of our employees were in pain, and they were really feeling hurt from a business decision that we made. And I, instead of acknowledging that first, I went right into some rationales. And so first of all, I’d say those emails lacked humanity, in which I like to and I do generally communicate with our teams." Sarandos said he still backs keeping the special streaming. 

Sophie Maerowitz is senior content manager for PRNEWS. Follow her @SophieMaerowitz.