AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson issued a public apology Friday morning regarding the company's association with Michael Cohen as a political consultant for their potential merger with Time Warner. AT&T paid Cohen $600,000 for his consulting services, according to CNN.
In the apology, the CEO described hiring Cohen as a "big mistake." Stephenson made it clear that the relationship between AT&T and Cohen was "done according to the law and entirely legitimate," but the association with Cohen was a "serious misjudgment."
He took responsibility for the failed vetting process from their Washington D.C. team and also apologized to his employees who "work tirelessly every day to serve customers and represent the brand proudly." Stephenson ended the statement with a simple "we will do better."
The primary reason these shady payments came to light is because Cohen is currently under federal investigation. Overall, it's safe to say that AT&T and their executives are not as much sorry they did what they did, but rather, sorry they got caught -- not to mention sorry their merger fell through despite this relationship with Cohen.
As a small business owner, there are two lessons to be learned from this apology -- and AT&T's actions in general.
Don't overlook your employees.
In terms of crisis communication, Stephenson did a good job at owning his mistake. He made clear and took responsibility for the decision allowing Cohen to consult for AT&T.
Perhaps the most admirable part of Stephenson's apology was when he addressed his employees directly. "To all of you who work tirelessly every day to serve customers and represent the brand proudly, thank you. My personal commitment to you is -- we will do better," he wrote.
This is an important sentiment from Stephenson, the CEO of a multi-billion dollar company, to reach out directly to all levels of employees. And for small businesses facing bad press, it's vital to address the issue directly with employees or risk allowing the situation to ripple into other aspects of the business.
While this statement may not be entirely sincere or enough to fix what has been done to the company's reputation, AT&T was wise to apologize to its employees for tarnishing the brand they work hard to uphold, and hopefully this will combat any employee backlash.
Do everything as if it could go public.
Overall, the most important takeaway from this apology, and situation as a whole, is to always behave as if your words and actions could be reported publicly. In this modern age of technology and social media, anything you do can potentially be posted about, investigated and scrutinized.
As a small business owner, every choice you make for your business or personally can reflect on your business' brand and potentially tarnish its reputation.
Stephenson only had to make this apology because he was caught, but if his company had never associated with Cohen in the first place, AT&T wouldn't be linked to this situation in the first place. Always act as if you are under a microscope, because in today's world, you are.