THE BLOG

When Executives Go Rogue

05/07/2014 01:31 pm ET | Updated Jul 07, 2014

We've seen some strange communications challenges recently in the Silicon Valley: The GitHub fiasco; Gurbaksh Chahal and the mess at RadiumOne; and now a scurrilous little diddy courtesy of PayPal's Rocky Agrawal wandering into the netherworld of late-night tweeting.

Each of these circumstances may appear to be very different from the next, but they all have something in common: Top execs going rogue, pulling the curtain back, going very public with what could have -- should have -- remained within the boardroom walls. Each of these companies is facing brutal internal and external communications repercussions because top execs put their personal brands ahead of the companies they serve, creating a circus instead of remembering doing the job they're paid to do.

Let me be clear: As a former reporter, I'm all for transparency, for sunshine laws, for dealing with problems directly, quickly and effectively, finding solutions and moving forward. But airing dirty laundry can be a dangerous game to play and those doing so run the risk of running a fool's errand in a misguided way to protect themselves at the expense of the organizations they serve. And those left behind are faced with the wrenching difficulties and distractions of trying to mop up.

Briefly, in the case of GitHub, the co-founder and President Tom Preston-Werner was put on leave after a female engineer, Julie Ann Horvath resigned rather publicly, claiming she was the victim of gender discrimination. Her claims were all the more sensational because she also complained that Preston-Werner's wife harassed her. An internal investigation ultimately "cleared" him and his wife of legal wrongdoing but found he did make some mistakes and would need to resign. He even admitted doing so on his personal blog, but then went on the offensive saying he is "prepared to fight any further false claims on this matter to the full extent of the law," a not-so-veiled threat to the Horvath camp that it should remain quiet from here forward.

Horvath fired back with extensive tweets, disappointed in the so-called "independent investigation" that found no legal wrongdoing. The he-tweet/she-tweet volleys were ugly, and personal, and stunning.

For GitHub, the troubles were compounded by the apparent lack of transparency into what went into the investigation, how it was conducted, specific findings, conversations, evidence. Its initial statement about this fell woefully short in the details department. This ultimately led the company to issue a follow-on statement with many more details, and most importantly, an apology for being so vague at the outset. It was all a significant, costly distraction that could have been completely avoided had the company taken control of the message from the very beginning, understood its key constituencies (employees, investors, legal and the media), and crafted a complete, candid, well-honed statement to begin with. But it didn't and paid a big price in the process.

To RadiumOne, and the salacious story of Gurbaksh Chahal, a super-successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur who has done almost as much to start companies as he's done to promote how capable he is at starting companies. Chahal is a one-man brand now suffering the other side of the media menagerie. He accepted a plea bargain recently for domestic violence and battery charges after San Francisco Police said it had security camera video showing him hitting and kicking his girlfriend 117 times. That tape wasn't admissible, severely weakening the case against him, but only after public outrage did, on April 26th, the RadiumOne board dismiss him as the company's CEO.

Here's where Chahal goes rogue. He took to his personal blog (which has since been taken down, but you can read the details) to defend himself in a clumsy, egomaniacal, deaf-ear kind of way that was shocking if only because it was so self-aggrandizing and completely unapologetic. A snippet: "Celebrities in sports, entertainment and business, and high net worth individuals in general are all potential targets. It was only a matter of time when I would fall prey." And while all of that may in fact be true, not all celebrities in sports, entertainment and business, and those high net worth individuals plead guilty.

Enter RadiumOne's new CEO Bill Lonergan who is trying to begin the healing process with an internal memo that the company must have known would be leaked widely to outsiders (which Re/code.net got and you can read the internal memo from Lonergan) The memo is a treatise on how to do this kind of thing well: Stark details of the investigation, the board's mindset, the company's view on whether Chahal has a legal case against it for firing him. It's a frequently asked question doc that could not be more effective: Decisive, honest, transparent, and showing a company--and a CEO--deeply in control.

And finally, to Rakesh "Rocky" Agrawal, PayPal's director of strategy, hired a scant two months ago, and who is now looking for work. Agrawal went rogue in a Twitter rant this past weekend, calling out colleagues, disparaging them. Some of the sentences seemed incoherent. He was summarily fired, though he took to Twitter again to clarify, claiming he had actually resigned a day earlier, which makes little sense, but there you go.

Meantime, PayPal, which has suffered its own mess of a year thanks to Carl Icahn, and which certainly didn't need this, is left to pick up the pieces. So far, all the company has done is to tweet that it has zero tolerance for this kind of behavior. But there's obviously so much more to say. And still time to say it. Things like: "These are the opinions of an individual;" "he shared them in an inappropriate way;" "our employees mean everything to us and they continue to focus on the mission, which is, whatever that mission is, and we support them, encourage them." Messages like that matter. And they resonate.

Make no mistake: These are crises of communication and companies owe it to all their key constituencies to take charge, own the message, own the narrative, own the story, control the fall-out. I routinely counsel clients that crisis craves structure and in each of these circumstances, an A+B+C approach to communications assets would have made a significant difference in the coverage that followed. Disavowing the commentary and explaining why, offering the company's version of events to establish the narrative foundation, repeating the overall corporate goal--what the company is trying to achieve and how those who toil every day to make that happen are still of paramount concern, maintaining leadership/accessibility/transparency, along with regular internal updates can all go a long way to managing the crisis and maintaining stability and credibility.

These are three stark, recent examples of what happens when well known, top executives fly off the rails. In this world of Twitter and Facebook and Instagram, where personal brands and provocateurs can grab hold of and own the news cycle, I suspect we'll see a lot more of this in the coming days, weeks and months. Companies take note: Your day, week or month may be a few trash-tweet clicks away.