Professional Writing

Netflix, apologies and why blogs are for anyone but you

Words have power all right and there’s no better way to see this than when things go wrong.

Netflix is a US DVD and online video rental service. Or rather it was until a September 1st when it split itself into two sites, one for DVDs and one for video streaming.

There was uproar, not least because users were told to pay separately for each site whereas before they got both services for one price.

Blog roll?

Change? Change!

Companies change all the time – Facebook and its numerous updates and myriad protest groups – Microsoft Windows prospers despite the hate and price, but we continue using it.

This time it’s different, and this time it’s not due to a lack of communication by the CEO but because of his communication.

How do I know it’s bad? A count of the negative comments on his blog shows that all of them on the front page are hateful, and news stories are mainly unfavourable. Following the money, which is a good way of judging the effect, the stock has plummeted from $2.87 in July (when the split was announced) to $1.27 today [although with rumours of an Amazon sale this may change].


On Sunday, Reed Hastings, Netflix’s CEO, attempted to explain to his audience the split.

He’s no doubt written many internal emails in his time, or contacted investors about his success, and spoken at conferences, but that’s not the same as talking to your prime audience, your users. And they were angry.


Hastings made a number of fatal errors, right from the very beginning.

His headline – “An explanation and some reflections” – doesn’t even hint an apology. Not a good start, but his biggest error is not addressing his audience.

Everyone but you

He uses the indirect and evasive “everyone” rather than you in his first paragraph. In fact he doesn’t use “you” in the crucial first three paragraphs – in fact he doesn’t use “you” until the 12th paragraph. Later on he refers to “many members”.

In not using “you” Hastings comes across as evasive, indirect and insincere. Have you ever been apologised to in the third-person and accepted it?

There is no try

He then says he “tries” to explain – if the CEO lacks confidence he can explain price changes to you who can?

Instead, Hastings dwells on himself, detailing “my greatest success”, suggesting that not only is he a winner but you shouldn’t question him. You aren’t supporting success. You loser. Indeed, by the 15th paragraph he dismissively states that “some members may feel” – implying “my view is better, whatever they may say”.

The red flag

Then comes the red flag, the reason why his apology sucks – “I need to be extra-communicative”. Wrong, Reed needs to be better at communicating. Extra-communicative just means he rates quantity over quality, he’ll be spreading his muck further.

Case in point – “what we are doing and why”. No, the audience wants to hear “what we are doing for you and why”. Netflix could be installing slides and a masseuse service in their HQ for all that message means to the average user.

Hastings in happier times


In a similar, egotistic, manner Hastings states that “I love our streaming services”. But that’s not the point of the complaint – users love streaming too, but not the way the change has been handled.

Next he says why he’s renamed part of the service Qwikster before he state the benefits. But by this point most people have stopped caring or are angry – benefits aren’t apparent until the 12th paragraph, buried deep in the article.

Finally, he ends with what he likes about Netflix, not what others care for. Oh, and by the way, he doesn’t even like the new logo!

Man in the mirror

In short, Hastings doesn’t address the problem of charge hikes and an inconvenient site split; he doesn’t address his audience; he doesn’t address the benefits in time; and he’s highly defensive and egotistic in his word choices.

Netflix’s CEO isn’t alone in this. Tony Hayward of BP (or for any readers in the White House or the 1980s, British Petroleum), but his is the most notable in terms of damage a few hundred poorly considered words can do.

I don’t blame him entirely. He’s written hundreds of internal emails to his staff (not his customers), where he has to explain company changes, and the Dunning Kruger effect – which I’ll be writing more on at a later date – means he thinks he’s an expert.

He’s not, he’s a dunce.

A poor excuse for an apology

He doesn’t focus on his audience and how what he says will benefit him. I don’t feel like I learned anything of value to me as a (hypothetical) customer.

I also blame the blog editor and comms team for not doing their job of catching, editing and educating Hastings on this. CEOs may not like to be contradicted, but I can tell you they hate being pilloried.

Reed Hastings has a lot to boast about. But not when you’re apologising. He should have stuck to the audience benefits from the headline downwards.

Words are powerful weapons. Don’t turn them on yourself.

By Jonathan Richardson

Jonathan Richardson is a writer and the editor of Considered Words.

He's worked as a journalist, writer and analyst for organisations including the BBC and Which? He's also written for the stage in Cambridge, radio and sketches at the Edinburgh festival.

He's now a freelance writer and data analyst.

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