The Curious Case of Rocky Agrawal and PayPal – Twitter loves a #Fail…sometimes

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This week saw an interesting drama play out on the interwebs involving a high-profile company – PayPal – and its high-profile March, 2014 hire – Rakesh Agrawal.

“All human beings have three lives: public, private, and secret.”

– Gabriel Garcia Marquez

 

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Twitter loves a #Fail. Whether for good or bad, we run to it, point at it, mock it, muse about it, write about it, and anxiously wait for the next as the speed of social drives our need for “new.”

Some use the #Fail to learn, others to ridicule, others to chastise the maddening crowd – we crowdsource #Fails – we are the great crowdneckers, as it were.

There are any number of examples…a PR Pro’s racism revealed, a drunken CEO’s late night rants finally put to an end along with the company he founded, but the case of Rakesh Agrawal may be a bit different; it certainly brought out the #Fail enthusiasts, but also brought out the interventionists, and some strong lessons about consequence management.

To be clear, this is not MIT’s award-winning Chemical Engineer Dr. Rakesh Agrawal.  This is the VentureBeat, Forbes, TechCrunch Contributor (his analyses of Groupon including the 4-part series “Groupon Was The Single Worst Decision I Have Ever Made As A Business Owner” is somewhat legend), and regular commentator on CNBC and Bloomberg Television (among others), and now former PayPal Director of Strategy Rakesh “Rocky” Agrawal. This past March, Mr. Agrawal wrote an articulate post on VentureBeat announcing his move to PayPal. In it he says:

“Life is too short and workdays are too long to be at a job you hate. I’ve quit high-paying jobs in the past because I just hated what I was doing or didn’t believe in what they were doing.”

All sounded rosy.

Until this past weekend, when Mr. Agrawal sent several messages on Twitter, some since deleted, from a jazz festival in New Orleans. Messages that, among other things, specifically insulted Christina Smedley, Vice President of Global Communications at PayPal.

There then followed a series of frenzied and convoluted public messages from Mr. Agrawal; a failed smartphone test, Rakesh claiming that he separated from PayPal via a late evening resignation email, PayPal implying he had been terminated for cause, and a seemingly manic stream of messages from Rakesh regarding the formation of a new company at warp-speed, new hires via Tweets (including a three-year old), stock options, veiled threats, and hints of delusions of grandeur mixed with remorse, all culminating in a landing in New York and a plea for, of all things, water:

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Mr. Agrawal indicated that he was fine, no worries, there was a master plan at work, and that he knew what he was doing.  However a taint of bitterness remained in his messages:

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While many readers scratched their heads and mused on the dangers of drinking and Tweeting, other Twitter users – those who had worked and collaborated with Rakesh – sounded the alarm.

The tipping point came in a terse Twitter message from PayPal, and a short post titled “Moving On” by their President:

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Moving On

Full Text of Moving On:

“David Marcus, President, PayPal

When Rakesh (a.k.a. “Rocky”) Agrawal joined PayPal in March as a Director of Strategy, he said in our own PayPal Forward blog that he couldn’t think of a “better place to be.” So the turn of events over the past few days have been shocking and sad. Stan Chudnovsky, our VP of Growth and Strategy, invited Rocky to join his team to help PayPal chart the future of payments for small businesses and entrepreneurs. But instead of focusing on that amazing opportunity, Rocky chose to turn a career-defining moment into career-destroying infamy.

Since his tasteless tweets first became public, Rocky has posted positive remarks about myself and other PayPal leaders. Thanks but no thanks, Rocky. When you attack and insult my team, you attack, and insult me and the rest of PayPal. I think the world of the people you’ve insulted. They are some of the best people I’ve worked with in my career, and I will not tolerate your mad rants any longer.

Now…if you’re a close friend of Rocky’s and you’re out there, I’d strongly suggest getting to him sooner rather than later, as his behavior is extremely worrisome.

We at PayPal are putting this episode behind us, as always working on behalf of our customers.

Onward with dignity and respect…”

Many took umbrage with PayPal’s too public messaging, specifically the Tweet announcing Mr. Agrawal’s “termination” and the implied issue of mental health à laNow…if you’re a close friend of Rocky’s and you’re out there, I’d strongly suggest getting to him sooner rather than later, as his behavior is extremely worrisome.

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Journo Rob Pegoraro contacted Rocky and interviewed him during the height of the incident. He states “I can report that contrary to the Hunter S. Thompson-esque persona he’d been creating, he seemed in command of his wits and confident in the ultimate success of his social-media strategy.” Read the entire post with audio here.

One friend and former AOL co-worker, Farhan Memon, did more. He contacted the NYPD and Rakesh’s brother, the latter jumping on a plane from California to New York. Mr. Memon then wrote a blog post:PayPal’s Reaction to Fired Exec Required Better Appreciation of Mental Health Issues.”

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However, shortly afterward, new streams of messaging ensued, varying between apologies and venom:

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Mr. Memon writes in the conclusion of his blog article:

“My take is that Rocky’s resignation, his Twitter comments against PayPal employes, and his growing mania in New York cannot be viewed as isolated incidents. They are an escalating set of events that need to be looked at together in order to be properly understood. It did not help at all that PayPal poured fuel on the fire. I’ve counseled Rocky that he needs to take a break and with the help of a therapist he can start to undertand [sic] why his, actions which make so much sense to him, caused the rest of us so much worry.”

“If you’re explaining you’re losing.”

What are we to take away from all of this? At Firestorm, we look at this from a Consequence Management point-of-view:

Employees are terminated, or quit, by the thousands every day. The public stage is not the place for conjecture or personalization in these matters, specifically by the Company, and secondarily by the exiting employee.  While the second is not controllable by the Company, the first certainly is.

While PayPal had no need to post a blog article announcing the separation it was free to do so, but it certainly had no need to post an article that personalized the event.  The tone of the message was not supportive of PayPal’s brand, and did nothing to help educate readers as to the facts of the situation. During an event such as this, the facts are the only thing that should be objectively communicated.

PayPal’s Marcus wanted to demonstrate zero-tolerance; he wanted to demonstrate that he vehemently supports his team, but he did so in a way that became subjective. 

Additionally, in PayPal’s response there is an intimation regarding Mr. Agrawal’s mental health, an issue that must never be publicly mused upon by a current or former employer.  Ever.

As for Mr. Rakesh, there is no question that quiet is now called for. Firestorm Principal Guy Higgins mused on Mr. Agrawal’s motivation:

“Why did Mr Agrawal tweet offensive remarks about his PayPal colleagues?  I don’t know, but it’s not hard to speculate based on similar behavior in other (non-Agrawalian) cases.  Number one – he was in a “non-official” mental mode.  He was attending a jazz festival and not thinking about being a representative of PayPal – he was “off duty.”  He was relaxed and feeling somewhat unconstrained.  Everyone has moments like that.  He may be an extrovert and pre-disposed to act quickly (we frequently choose extroverts to be leaders because of their pre-disposition to act firmly and confidently).  He may have been feeling uninhibited since social media tends to make people feel that, since they are not face-to-face with a person, they can behave with fewer social inhibitions or constraints.  He may also have, as he asserts, thought that he was in a private mode on Twitter, tweeting only with a single person – a personal friend.”

“This should be a learning moment for everyone.  Social media is very useful, very convenient, and easy to abuse.  We are all frequently told not to drive while distracted.  I think that the same admonishment should apply to the use of social media.  The collision Mr. Agrawal had with his bosses at PayPal didn’t crunch any fenders or break any windshields, but it did seriously damage Mr. Agrawal’s reputation and possibly his financial future.  It could easily result in a cost to him far greater than that of any automobile accident.”

We now live in a social technology environment, one that is becoming more sophisticated every day.  While there are new sets of rules, old rules of common sense do apply. 

Effective communications is a crucial element in consequence management – we’ve said this hundreds of times and will continue to repeat it.  Effective communication establishes public confidence in the ability of an organization to deal with a crisis and to bring about a satisfactory conclusion.

Effective communication is also integral to the larger process of information exchange aimed at eliciting trust and promoting understanding of the relevant issues or actions.

For PayPal, their only goals in communicating should have been to:

  • Build, maintain or restore trust
  • Improve knowledge and understanding
  • Guide and encourage appropriate attitudes, decisions, actions and behaviors
  • Encourage collaboration and cooperation

Is that what they did?  What do you think? Let us know in the comments, we value your opinion. 

Question: As the use of social tools becomes more broadly intertwined with the concept of transparent communication, can there be too much transparency, or does it allow a more immediate, public acknowledgement when the Emperor has no clothes?

 

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