June 2014: The Worst Video Media Disaster
John Legere, the CEO of T-Mobile, is known for being rather provocative.
He has a lot of fans who appreciate his “un-CEO” style which, as described by Business Insider, consists of a “trademark uniform of a black jacket over a pink T-Mobile shirt, jeans, and pink Converse All Star sneakers.” It also consists of a lot of swear words.
Many analysts have praised his effectiveness during his almost two-year tenure as CEO, with Business Insider writing that T-Mobile has enjoyed a “remarkable turnaround,” and is “growing faster than its competitors in terms of revenue and subscribers.” According to Wikipedia, J.D. Power and Associates “ranked the company highest among major wireless carriers for retail-store satisfaction four years consecutively and highest for wireless customer care two years consecutively.”
To get a sense of Legere’s unconventional style, check out this video from a company event earlier this month:
In just that one presentation, Legere used the following salty language:
- “They’re out of their goddamn mind.”
- “That is a complete crock of bullshit.”
- “They’re greedy bastards.”
- “We are absolutely kicking their ass.”
- “A cacophony of the biggest bullshit in history.”
- “What the fuck do I care?”
- “The fuckers hate you.”
- “I don’t give a crap.”
- “Every goddamn note you listen to.”
- “I don’t give a shit.”
I understand what Legere is trying to do. He wants to appear “authentic” and stand in marked contrast to the CEOs of his competitors, who he feels are treating customers badly. Personally, I don’t love the CEO of a public company talking like a drunk at the local bar. Regardless, his curse words aren’t the reason he made this list. Rather, it was his highly publicized comment about his main competitors, AT&T and Verizon, that earned him widespread condemnation:
“These high and mighty duopolists that are raping you for every penny you have.”
One commenter in an earlier PR Daily piece pointed out that the word “rape” is a metaphor in this case, writing, “I have never been literally ‘killed’ but that’s a common term for how one team defeats another….that’s why they are called metaphors.” But Mr. Legere’s job isn’t to push the boundaries of accepted speech. He’s the CEO of a company whose job is to avoid unnecessarily offending large swaths of his potential customer base by using words that are particularly salient in our culture.
In an open letter published on the website MomsRising, five of Mr. Legere’s female employees blasted his use of language:
“Trivializing the brutality of sexual assault is not an edgy corporate communications strategy. For many women, this is not funny. It’s traumatizing.
Being courteous to our customers is one of our highest priorities as customer service representatives. But what would happen if we ever swore on the phone? What would happen if we used the same rape metaphor in a conversation with a customer? That would certainly be our last day on the job. It’s not even a question. T-Mobile would escort us to the door — and rightfully so.
We don’t really think he’s sorry, despite his short apology on Twitter, about what he said. And that’s even more upsetting. It’s hard enough as it is to be women working the male-dominated world of tech. Our CEO’s language is just another reminder of how we don’t belong in the “boys club.”
We understand that Mr. Legere’s comments were all part of some flashy marketing scheme to get press and to appeal to young people. But is this the kind of message we want to send?”
Legere apologized for his use of the word. Nonetheless, that one word commandeered the headlines for the entire event, overshadowing any of the underlying points he had hoped to make.
Brendan Greeley of Bloomberg Businessweek summarized Legere’s shtick quite well:
“Every time he makes a public appearance, he needs to be just offensive enough to get our attention. That means he has to be slightly more offensive than the last time he got our attention. This is a machine with a ratchet, and it has now produced the deeply unfunny word ‘rape.’ Perhaps no word is sacred, but that’s a defense for an act of art—not a corporate communications strategy. John Legere sells phone plans for a living. He’s not Sarah Silverman or Lenny Bruce.”
What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, I absolutely agree with you that Mr. Legere’s language is reprehensible. He’s obviously trying to shake things up, but one does run the risk of offending large swaths of one’s audience when one makes liberal use of generally offensive language. On the other hand, though, I feel that the context of the sentence in which he used “rape” was clearly not intended to refer to sexual assault; rather, he was trying to use the word instead of “take advantage of”. Having said that, I presume that his critics were not actually offended at the word choice, but instead capitalized upon it to draw attention to his overall vulgar language. For me personally, I’m more offended that he dropped the f-bomb in front of a large audience. I’m not a prude, but that language is not appropriate in a presentation from leader to followers. I think that Mr. Legere should decide whether he wants to be CEO of a company or a rock star, and then tailor his language accordingly.
Thanks for your comment, Art.
You’re right that Legere seems to want to be a rock star. Someone should remind him that Steve Jobs (among many others) was able to be a rock star without being profane on stage.
I performed a very unscientific focus group with some friends and family members (mostly women) about the use of the word “rape” in this context. A few of them were legitimately offended, while a few others were not offended but found it an ill-advised word choice. Take that for what it’s worth, but for me, it served as a reminder that the feelings run deep on this one.
Thanks for reading,
I think that rape is a heinous enough act that we should avoid using the word whenever we can. Also, using it to describe a higher-than-you-think-necessary cell phone bill doesn’t really square with the reality of sexual assault.
As to the broader scope of Legere’s performance onstage, I wonder just how unusual he is within the CEO ranks. Something tells me that Larry Ellison of Oracle is a bit blue on stage, but I don’t know where I get that.
And while I don’t know if Richard Branson is known for “working blue”, he certainly seems to have inspired Legere to some extent — longer hair, no-blue-suit-and-tie wardrobe…
I suspect that as long as he’s delivering results to the board, he will be given a long leash. If the numbers go south, the likelihood that an f-bomb will result in the other f-word (fired) will go up.
With the warnings as to what to expect with this CEO, I was waiting for worse. It was bad enough, but not nearly as offensive as I expected it would be. My background in the media, then working with a very active cell phone adolescent population, I have been exposed to everyday vernacular of this sort. Let’s not judge him when he is addressing his peers or company personnel for what he is saying. Let’s judge him more for allowing the shock to be the message rather than substance. If we’re going to bring up Steve Jobs–no he did not use profanity, but he was a master at impact and manipulation which were necessary ingredients for what he was trying to achieve.
Those two elements–impact and manipulation– are behind all conveyances of a company’s message, especially when that company’s head is trying for a certain image and demographic.