Case Study: Good Corporate Communications in a ‘Difficult Situation’

Today we’re glad to bring you a guest post via Laura Kelso. Laura is a co-founder of Pasta, a Bay Area startup providing public relations management solutions to tech clients. A former tech PR pro turned fledgling front-end developer, she now focuses on building smarter approaches to the management and execution of PR.

Earlier this month at PyCon 2013 — a big tech industry conference for developers — a female attendee tweeted a picture of two male attendees, publicly shaming them for making inappropriate sexist jokes. This tweet led to at least two people losing their jobs. One of them was the woman herself, who worked for SendGrid as a “developer evangelist”, and the incident has sparked heated debate about sexism in tech and attacks on all sides.

But stepping away from the commentary regarding her intentions or actions, we can learn some valuable PR lessons from the actions of a company facing fire due to the actions of an individual employee. As the title of the CEO’s public statement implies, SendGrid did an excellent job of handling a “difficult situation” by taking a stance and communicating it quickly to stakeholders.

SendGrid correctly decided that the incident required a corporate response.

The behavior of an individual employee via personal social media channels is always a gray area. Since the employee in question was officially representing the company at PyCon and her actions directly affected her responsibilities, SendGrid was correct to address the situation directly and publicly.

Before addressing it publicly, they addressed it privately.

While we weren’t behind closed doors at SendGrid, it’s clear the company didn’t cut ties and run as soon as word spread. The company’s team acknowledged the incident immediately through Facebook, Twitter and the corporate blog — and we can only assume they spoke with their employee, got the full story, and made an incredibly hard decision. It would have been nice for followers to know that further explanation was coming after the initial statement, but hindsight is always 20/20.

SendGrid’s clearly communicated its position with a sense of empathy.

The statement posted on the corporate blog did so many things right. It came from the CEO, Jim Franklin. The company supported its (now former) employee’s good intentions, condemned the “vitriol” inspired by the incident, and justified its own next steps in the logical best interest of its stakeholders. Finally, the company avoided creating another soundboard for unproductive discourse by turning off blog comments while still soliciting feedback via an email directed to the “ceo.”

This story is a regrettable incident that will help perpetuate certain popular stereotypes of the technology industry — but it’s also a good example of how good public relations practices can help even a relatively small company diffuse a potentially damaging situation.