Netflix Fires PR Chief After Use of N-Word in Meeting (Exclusive)

In a lengthy internal memo, CEO Reed Hastings addressed letting go top communications executive Jonathan Friedland: "His descriptive use of the N-word on at least two occasions at work showed unacceptably low racial awareness and sensitivity."
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Jonathan Friedland

Netflix is letting go of its top communications spokesman.

Jonathan Friedland, who has served as the streaming giant's chief communications officer for the past six years, is out at the company after "insensitive" remarks he made to his team. Sources say that Friedland used the N-word in a meeting with other Netflix staffers, some of whom later reported the incident. Per insiders, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings sent a companywide email explaining Friedland's firing around 12:45 p.m. PT on Friday.

Friedland, a former Disney executive, first joined Netflix in February 2011 as vp global corporate communications and was promoted to the top comms role the following year. A replacement for Friedland has yet to be named.

"I'm leaving Netflix after seven years," said Friedland in a statement to The Hollwood Reporter. "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. 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. I feel honored to have built a brilliant and diverse global team and to have been part of this collective adventure in building the world's leading entertainment service."

In his post, Friedland oversaw media and content publicity for the streamer's original series, films and specials in 190 countries around the world. In addition to previously serving as senior vp corporate communications at The Walt Disney Co., Friedland was also formerly a foreign correspondent and editor for The Wall Street Journal and Far Eastern Economic Review.

The shake-up comes as Netflix, led by Hastings, ended the first quarter with 125 million subscribers worldwide, with expectations to add 6.2 million in the second quarter. Just last week, the company's shares closed 3 percent higher to a new record of $404.98, even as the broader markets fell. The platform has been increasingly pushing into international territories and expanding its roster of originals to include more unscripted content of late.

The full memo Hastings sent out to Netflix employees about Friedland's firing is below.

All:

I've made a decision to let go of Jonathan Friedland. Jonathan contributed greatly in many areas, but his descriptive use of the N-word on at least two occasions at work showed unacceptably low racial awareness and sensitivity, and is not in line with our values as a company.

The first incident was several months ago in a PR meeting about sensitive words. Several people afterwards told him how inappropriate and hurtful his use of the N-word was, and Jonathan apologised to those that had been in the meeting. We hoped this was an awful anomaly never to be repeated.

Three months later he spoke to a meeting of our Black Employees @ Netflix group and did not bring it up, which was understood by many in the meeting to mean he didn't care and didn't accept accountability for his words.

The second incident, which I only heard about this week, was a few days after the first incident; this time Jonathan said the N-word again to two of our Black employees in HR who were trying to help him deal with the original offense. The second incident confirmed a deep lack of understanding, and convinced me to let Jonathan go now.

As I reflect on this, at this first incident, I should have done more to use it as a learning moment for everyone at Netflix about how painful and ugly that word is, and that it should not be used. I realize that my privilege has made me intellectualize or otherwise minimize race issues like this. I need to set a better example by learning and listening more so I can be the leader we need.

Depending on where you live or grew up in the world, understanding and sensitivities around the history and use of the N-word can vary. Debate on the use of the word is active around the world (example) as the use of it in popular media like music and film have created some confusion as to whether or not there is ever a time when the use of the N-word is acceptable. For non-Black people, the word should not be spoken as there is almost no context in which it is appropriate or constructive (even when singing a song or reading a script). There is not a way to neutralize the emotion and history behind the word in any context. The use of the phrase "N-word" was created as a euphemism, and the norm, with the intention of providing an acceptable replacement and moving people away from using the specific word. When a person violates this norm, it creates resentment, intense frustration, and great offense for many. Our show Dear White People covers some of this ground.

Going forward, we are going to find ways to educate and help our employees broadly understand the many difficult ways that race, nationality, gender identity and privilege play out in society and our organization. We seek to be great at inclusion, across many dimensions, and these incidents show we are uneven at best. We have already started to engage outside experts to help us learn faster.

Jonathan has been a great contributor and he built a diverse global team creating awareness for Netflix, strengthening our reputation around the world, and helping make us into the successful company we are today. Many of us have worked closely with Jonathan for a long time, and have mixed emotions. Unfortunately, his lack of judgment in this area was too big for him to remain. We care deeply about our employees feeling safe and supported at Netflix.

Much of this information will be in the press shortly. But any detail not in the press is confidential to employees.

–Reed

Friedland also tweeted about his exit on Friday:

He later tweeted out, "Thanks. Rise high, fall fast. All on a couple of words...." and then quickly deleted it. THR obtained a screenshot of the tweet before it was removed.