Professional Communicators Need to Set the Standard for Corporate Communications

Jonathan Friedland, Netflix’s chief communications officer, was fired from his position on June 22 after it was revealed that he used the “N word” recently on two different business-related occasions. Reed Hastings, the company’s CEO, made it clear that Friedland was being let go because of this serious lapse. The company acted very quickly after Friedland’s transgression became known.

After he left the company, Friedland made it clear that he knew that he had crossed a line that a corporate leader, especially a communications leader, should never cross.

“Leaders have to be beyond reproach in the example we set and unfortunately I fell short of that standard when I was insensitive in speaking to my team about words that offend in comedy,” Friedland said in a series of tweets. “I feel awful about the distress this lapse caused to people at a company I love and where I want everyone to feel included and appreciated.”

The lesson here is that what we say even in the confines of our offices has the potential to go public.  There are people listening to everything we say, always, and it may not get to the CEO or another member of the C-suite. It has the potential to go directly to the media or public and that is when you will have a communications crisis on your hands.

As professional communicators, we need to set the standards of how a company communicates to its employees, its stakeholders and the public. How can the public trust a company when members of its C-suite make statements that offend many of its employees and much of the public? I understand that people make mistakes, but there is no room for this type of “mistake.” And that is particularly true for people who are paid well specifically to express the company’s views to the public.

Communicators need to lead the way by setting the standards of how an organization should communicate. Words matter – especially in today’s workplace at a time when diversity & inclusion and sexual harassment in the workplace are on everyone’s minds.

No one, no matter how experienced or how important to a company’s welfare, is immune to being let go if they breach the basic rules of communication. It’s not just the “N word,” although that is a particularly egregious example. And it’s not just true in the corporate world. Law firm leaders, particularly communications executives, need to set examples for the whole firm about the words they choose to use and those they choose to avoid.