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AOL CEO Tim Armstrong's 'Distressed Babies': 3 PR Lessons Learned

By Aditi Mukherji, JD on February 11, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

AOL Chief Executive Tim Armstrong is still reeling from his massive "distressed babies" public relations debacle. At a town hall meeting, Armstrong blamed two AOL employees' "distressed babies" and their pricey health care costs for the company's decision to cut employee retirement benefits, Reuters reports.

Deanna Fei, an accomplished writer and mother to one of the so-called "distressed babies," penned an incredibly moving article for Slate about how Armstrong's town hall comments has affected her family, including her husband, the AOL employee.

Here are three lessons in-house counsel should take away from this mess:

  1. Apologize promptly. Note in Fei's article that she specifically takes aim at Armstrong's delayed apology: "Once the blowback started, Armstrong issued an internal memo -- not an apology" and "Late Saturday, Armstrong finally issued an apology in an email to employees" (bold included in original text). She goes on, "This is commendable, but the damage to my family had already been done." In catastrophic PR situations like this, "sorry" probably won't cut it. But that doesn't negate its necessity. Your options: apologize in a timely manner or appear disingenuous, arrogant, and callous.
  2. Never single out employees. It's always a bad idea to single out employees in a public forum, particularly when the goal is to shirk responsibility for a serious issue like cutting retirement benefits. Did Armstrong even run this by his GC? One more Protip: Don't deliver bad news by alienating your team. As Fei put it, "The hardest thing to bear has been the whiff of judgment in Armstrong's statement ..." Not only is it legally dubious from an employee privacy standpoint, it's cruel and insensitive. It invites litigation, breeds resentment, and erodes company morale.
  3. Take responsibility. One sterling quality of respected leaders is the ability to admit wrongdoing and accept responsibility. This is different from an apology. This is saying you did something wrong, breaking down why it was wrong, and explaining how you're going to fix it. During crisis management, to earn respect from your employees and the general public, you must embrace accountability.

Also, never pick on employees with gifted authors as spouses. Fei's beautifully written piece for Slate will certainly cast a pall on Armstrong's attempts at damage control.

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