The VC/Tech Industry has a Crisis Communications Issue

I have been working in public relations for the past 20 years. Part of that time, I have done work in crisis communications, having been called on for crisis counsel with an online influencer/star, working with a consumer-packaged goods company on messaging and plans, and others that I will not even vaguely identify.

There's a lot of smoke right now in the technology world, and there are more fires that will soon need to be put out, on the rampant sexual harassment for which women are now coming forward. Today's New York Times article was both shocking and yet not surprising - especially as I read friends' and acquaintances' names in the article. And the NYT is not the type of publication that goes to print based on one or two accusations. They had a half dozen women willing to risk their own reputations, and two dozen more with whom they confirmed stories behind the scenes. That's why this is both smoke and fire, and we will see many more articles.

Based on what I have noticed in the past, many of these companies have junior PR people who have never had to deal with a crisis. They don't have the background or training, and typical in today's PR world, they just do what their bosses tell them to do and neither question nor push back.

Today's article was preceded and followed by Medium posts, tweets and corporate statements by identified people and companies. But all were off on their timing, and all were off in a way that makes clear to readers that they were trying to contain the story or change the dialogue.

Putting out a Medium post hours before the New York Times runs its story was an attempt to change the story from "I have been caught" to "I have chosen to 'confess'"; but it fails if the post has no explicit mention of the woman/women or incident quoted in the Times. Publishing a company blog post to put out a statement about changes claiming the CEO had stepped aside months ago, on the day of the article, is a terrible strategy that calls every word before or since into question. And for some of the accused, their silence speaks volumes.

Where were the apologies? Where were the non-apologies -- the usual "I'm sorry if you were offended"? Where were the apologies to the families, the wives and the children to be putting them through this as well (is that another issue in how tech treats women, that the wives are afterthoughts?) Overall, the public reactions by people and companies called out in the Times give the impression that, as claimed by the article, this is a well-known practice in tech and the article is not a revelation but a temporary annoyance. We just need to let it blow over.

Of all the apologies, it is interesting that it was the lead of Binary Capital who did apologize to his family but at the same time, there was something insincere about the apology - especially coming after the first statement that was more attack and denial than ownership.

By contrast, look at what crisis handlers do when a politician gets caught philandering. The apology tour begins with an apology to the wife and family, usually seen standing at the politician's side, for putting them through the airing of dirty laundry. To leave off the people closest to you shows a lack of empathy, or an entitled sense that they signed up to be put through this.

This might be a watershed event for technology and the VC community. As the second story to break the past few weeks, the growing list of statements from the VC firms involved show more attachment to the status quo and concern for what the other VCs think than a desire to see change or do the right thing for the people affected. "We should have done more" and "we regret the oversight" are woulda, coulda throwaway lines.

Based on good crisis communications, an apology - and there needs to be more ownership and apologies - is a necessary start. But if it is just more lip-service and messaging, and is not tied to a major break from past behavior, it means nothing and nothing changes.

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2 comments

  1. It happened to me 16 years ago. I went to HR. I got fired. Almost all HR are women. I thought they would understand. Nope. They acted like I was a leper some sort. I spoke to my male friends. They told me it was my fault.
    I wrote to the VC firm. Never heard back. Then it happened again. Throughout my career, I lost counts how many times. These powerful predators held top jobs at Google, University of California. Nothing has ever changed.
    I told a friend of the wife. The wife confronted her husband. And after that I never heard from my friend again. I felt very alone in a long dark tunnel... I suffered a lot even long after. I learned that I have to be super smart and super strong in dealing with men because I just don't know which one is going to be the next predator. All meetings are in the public setting during office hours. Don't go to bar. Be strong to say "no" while showing kindness to the predators. I wish someone coached me and it took a long time to figure it out.

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  2. Spot on, as always Jeremy.
    The Valley has subscribed for years to the ridiculous belief that they can do their own PR thanks to social media. Not understanding that the mechanism is not the practitioner. You wouldn't hire someone who wasn't a doctor to operate on you just because you had invented a robotic surgical tool - you want a doctor behind that with knowledge of the procedure. Why VCs and Companies in the Bay Area think they can meet a career ending crisis with a rookie behind the keyboard is beyond me.

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