A company guide to damage control after a social media blowup


(Reuters/Albert Gea/Files)

While we here in Washington were lost in a storm of coverage about the White House correspondents dinner, much of Silicon Valley was following a tempest of a different sort: the fallout of now-former PayPal executive Rakesh Agrawal's very public departure from the payments company.

Agrawal, a noted payments analyst who joined PayPal only two months ago as its director of strategy, submitted his two-weeks' notice to the company on Friday. He then let loose on Twitter -- in a series of late-night, disparaging (NSFW and since deleted) messages that he said were meant to be part of a private conversation.

It's just the latest in a string of recent departures from tech companies that have played out in the open rather than in the traditional privacy of a human resources office, or even over the phone. In this case, the rant apparently went public by accident. But that surely hasn't been the case for other notable HR grievances that have come under the public eye of late.

Tech companies are particularly susceptible to having their personnel issues brought into the light, said Peter LaMotte, a senior vice president at the strategic communications firm Levick. "This is the world in which we now live," he said, "especially in these technology-focused companies, where social media is such an integrated part of communication."

For proof, just scan headlines from the past few months. There was the very public dismissal of RadiumOne chief executive Gurbaksh Chanal after he was convicted of domestic violence charges. Software company Mozilla saw its chief executive step down following heated criticism over his stance on gay marriage.

And the open-source coding startup Github found itself in the middle of a social media maelstrom after former engineer Julie Ann Horvath shared the troubling circumstances of her departure -- accusations of sexism and intimidation that ultimately led to the resignation of Gtihub co-founder Tom Preston-Werner. To add another layer of social media madness, Horvath came forward after another employee gleefully started airing Github's dirty laundry on the anonymous social network Secret.

The upshot of all of these situations, LaMotte said, is that the skeletons in any company's closet are increasingly likely to get pulled into the open, be it a single employee's personal grudge or evidence of a more systemic cultural problem. "Unethical hiring practices, all the way down to how individual people are being treated -- all will come out through social media," he said.

In cases such as Agrawal's, where the drama unfolds almost entirely on social media, LaMotte said that companies should address the problem through whatever channel seems best but then step away from the temptation to engage with the situation any further.

"No company should get drawn into the drama," he said.  "But if it takes place on social media and is being heavily discussed on social media, a company should at least communicate in that medium."

In this case, PayPal did just that, telling its followers that Agrawal was no longer with the company in a brief message. The tweet heavily implied that Agrawal was dismissed as a result of his Twitter behavior, though Agrawal has since posted e-mails that indicate he resigned before his tweets.

PayPal did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Agrawal did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the matter, either. But it's clear that he knows exactly what kind of attention he's getting -- and that he's aware that taking down an errant message doesn't always mean that the evidence of a diatribe disappears:

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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