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The Ineffable Importance of Corporate Communications

It feels like we’re descending into a morass of miscommunication, with examples from companies large and small, including Slack, Bartender, and Adobe.


Several weeks ago, Slack took flak for an old privacy principles document that seemed to say that the company would be training generative AI models on the contents of customer workspaces. Plus, the only way to opt out of having content seemingly included in a generative AI training model was to send Slack email, not just flip a switch in a workspace’s settings.

Happily, despite the online furor, Slack wasn’t training large language models on customer data. While the email-based approach to opting out remains, most people won’t care about the less controversial ways Slack uses customer data (channel and emoji recommendations). After a few days, Slack updated the privacy principles to be more straightforward and explained the situation in a blog post. Slack probably didn’t lose many customers since it wasn’t doing anything different or wrong, but it undoubtedly took a hit to its reputation.


Then came the Bartender fiasco. The original developer, Ben Surtees, sold the Mac menu bar utility to a development company called Applause, which released an update with a new signing certificate for a company called “App Sub 1 LLC.” The new certificate triggered warnings with MacUpdater, and when Bartender users examined the update, they found it had added a data analytics framework called Amplitude. In short, it looked like Bartender had been sold to a sketchy company that planned to take advantage of its Accessibility and Screen Recording permissions to hack users. Emails to the original developer were returned as undeliverable, and even after Surtees seemingly posted an explanation and apology, many felt that it could have been forged.

When I tracked down Surtees’s personal email address and contacted him, he confirmed that his statement was genuine and speculated that Applause had added the Amplitude framework purely “to get an idea of the user base.” Applause now says it has removed the Amplitude framework from the latest test build. Whether or not Bartender is back to its pre-acquisition state, Applause has destroyed years of goodwill by failing to be transparent about the acquisition and the reasons behind the desire to add analytics. The company has finally published a post admitting its missteps and apologizing, but it may be too late for many.


Slack’s error lay in failing to update its privacy principles as generative AI became a thing. In contrast, Adobe got in trouble for updating its terms of use—and requiring users to agree before they could use Photoshop or other Adobe apps. (Apparently, you couldn’t even uninstall Photoshop without agreeing.) The change that raised the most hackles was “Clarified that we may access your content through both automated and manual methods, such as for content review.” That caused creative professionals to freak out that Adobe could spy on anything users created, including work covered under NDA. Plus, many were concerned that the new terms allowed Adobe to train its Firefly generative AI models on customer data.

A day later, Adobe published an explanation of the changes, including a version of the terms of use with change tracking visible. The company made the changes to clarify its moderation practices surrounding child sexual abuse material (CSAM). Adobe reiterated that it trains Firefly only on licensed content and public domain content where the copyright has expired and that it will never assume ownership of a customer’s work. Will people switch away from Creative Cloud because of Adobe’s ham-handed behavior? Probably not, but I was amused to see Affinity kicking off a 50%-off flash sale on Affinity Designer, Affinity Photo, and Affinity Publisher that drops the price of the multi-platform Universal License to $82.99 for all three apps together (see “Consider Switching from Creative Cloud to Affinity V2,” 5 December 2022).

Two Lessons

What should we take away from these missteps? First, when this sort of problem crops up again—and it will—I recommend that most people chill out for a few days. In each of these cases, the problem largely resolved itself quickly. It will do you no good to stress out about a problem that will likely go away so soon.

That’s not to criticize the people who did freak out. Yes, many of them were playing to a social media audience and exaggerating the potential downside, but the resulting media attention may have been necessary to get these companies to update their documents, clarify what they meant, and back down from potentially problematic changes.

On the other hand, it’s painfully obvious that companies need to do a better job with corporate communications. Each of these situations could have been avoided. A company the size of Slack should have someone tasked with evaluating key public-facing documents and ensuring they haven’t gone out of date. A developer is certainly allowed to sell their company, but both they and the acquiring company should be upfront with users about the acquisition. Just as important communications from a large or publicly traded company should be run by Legal, noteworthy changes to legal agreements should be evaluated by at least PR and possibly also people who can represent user opinion.

Are companies likely to devote time to verifying old content and checking new releases? I doubt it. But if you find yourself in a situation where your words could be misinterpreted by the public, an AI chatbot might be able to help. When I asked ChatGPT, “What concerns might Photoshop users have if they were shown this dialog and required to agree to the terms before being able to use the software?” and pasted in the text from Adobe’s Updated Terms of Use dialog, the response concisely summarized all the concerns I saw online—without all the hyperbole and profanity.

I wonder if anyone has yet developed an AI-based service that would regularly scan a set of public Web pages and report on areas of potential concern on a variety of metrics. If you write it, contact me, and I’ll take it for a test drive.

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Comments About The Ineffable Importance of Corporate Communications

Notable Replies

  1. " A day later, Adobe published an explanation of the changes, including a version of the terms of use with change tracking visible."

    I wish that pretty much ALL communications would have some sort of obvious ‘change tracking’, though I can’t quite imagine how to do so in conversation…

  2. I completely agree that these types of Terms and Conditions should be displayed with change tracking visible. In many cases, a few words or a sentence or two are changed in docments several pages long. Finding what has been changed to determine its impact on your situation is extremely difficult unless change trackng is displayed. Although I tend not to like regulations in such situations, I would be in favor of a regulation requiring this in such cases.

  3. “Whether or not Bartender is back to its pre-acquisition state, Applause has destroyed years of goodwill it may be too late for many.”

    For me it is. Just maybe there were no bad intentions and only stupidity, but what else are they going to botch with an app that has far-reaching permissions on my system? I’m out the door and will never return. With regret though…

  4. When a company “clarifies what they meant,” if it relates to a EULA, wait for them to clarify it in the EULA before cutting them any slack. If it’s not in the agreement, it’s not binding. It’s a suggestion at most.

    Of course, companies make unilateral changes to their EULAs all the time, so we need to be constantly vigilant.

  5. And some of them (I’m looking at you, USPS, but there are others) explicitly state that it is the user’s responsibility to read the T&C to find changes (without any tracking) because there will be no notification. I suppose I should be happy that some companies bother to show the effective date; not all do.

    Off-topic, but phone tree instructions that say “our menu options have changed recently” annoy me, because I don’t know if the options have changed since I learned the sequence of numbers to press to get where I want to go. The phone tree instructions should say “our menu options changed on May 26” so the caller can move ahead or listen for the changes.

  6. It’s not clear to me how binding a EULA is on the company that writes it. It’s bad enough that they’re sort of binding on users, not that hardly anyone ever sues.

  7. Fair point—although if the company doesn’t like their own EULA, they can change it at will. It makes me wonder what penalties they’d face for being caught breaking their own EULA—an obvious own-goal.

  8. I’m not a lawyer, but I can’t imagine that it would be cost-effective for most people to sue a large company for a potential violation of a EULA. That’s what’s frustrating—real people don’t actually have any choices other than not using the product or service in question.

  9. Obligatory pedant note, Adam:
    It’s “take flak.”

    Flack = publicist, shill
    Flak = criticism, metaphor for antiaircraft shells

  10. Ach, you’re right! Since I was writing about corporate communications, “flack” must have been foremost in my brain and crowded out the proper word. Fixed.

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