On October 8, Satya Nadella screwed up. In front of hundreds of female spectators at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, Nadella said women in computing shouldn’t celebrate themselves so much as to ask for a raise.
When interviewer Maria Klawe, the president of Harvey Mudd College and a Microsoft board member, asked Nadella to advise women how best to ask for a raise, the Microsoft CEO responded, “It’s not really about asking for the raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will actually give you the right raises as you go along. Because that’s good karma. It’ll come back because somebody’s going to know that’s the kind of person that I want to trust.”
The public reacted instantly, labeling Nadella as yet another ignorant and bullish male tech executive. And it instantly became Nadella’s and Microsoft’s job to soften that image.
That Nadella’s gaffe is still a topic of discussion almost two weeks later indicates some flaws in his public relations approach following the comments. CNBC and USA Today asked him about it in interviews earlier this week, and Steve Ballmer put in his two cents. His chat with Klawe highlighted one of the tech industry’s most gaping problems — the lack of diversity among employees, and CEOs’ bullishness toward the topic — but why hasn’t Nadella’s apologetic response satisfied the media and the public?
“You always want to, in a crisis, not just admit to the situation, but you want to detail a strategy to get out of it,” Dan McConnell, a public relations strategist in Seattle who specializes in crisis communications, said to 425 Business. Nadella achieved the first task with an apologetic staff email made public the day after the Hopper conference. He admitted his mistake and said he supported inclusivity programs, but that was it. There was no plan to fix the issue, nor an acknowledgement that such a plan was even being discussed at Microsoft.
Nadella’s plan to fix the problem did eventually come, but in a fashion McConnell says was inept — a leaked email nearly a week after the conference. Nadella’s delay gave the appearance that Microsoft had not discussed diversity and inclusivity until after the Hopper conference. Furthermore, Nadella said in his email that the plan will be “starting immediately,” leading people to believe this is Microsoft’s first crack at addressing the issue, even though Microsoft launched a diversity site and shared its internal ethnicity and gender stats on Oct. 3.
“If he’d have (discussed his plan) a day after, people would have thought, hey, maybe they’ve been working on this thing for a year and had a program in place,” McConnell said. “But when you wait a week, all of a sudden it’s like, they had plenty of time to think something up.”
Furthermore, Nadella’s second statement wasn’t a public statement at all. McConnell says Nadella should have reached out to the media outlets covering Microsoft immediately, rather than allowing one public email and one leaked email do all the talking for two weeks.
So Microsoft had a CEO who apologized quickly and was a week late in offering any sort of solution. The result? Nadella’s first big mistake as CEO is dragging on and sharing headlines with his company’s other initiatives. The reason, McConnell says, was a lack of preparedness in the beginning.
“Prepping for a presentation in front of an audience where women are the focus would certainly lead me to believe there should be some preparation about comments about women in the marketplace,” McConnell said. “It surprises me that he was put in that position by himself. It wasn’t (Klawe) asking the question of him, it’s that he should have thought about that and should have had a better answer.”