Dorothy Crenshaw April 21, 2016 | 12:13:00
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How To Win A PR War (Hubspot vs Dan Lyons)

Disrupted

Marketing software company Hubspot’s recent struggle with writer Dan Lyons is instructive for anyone embroiled in a public relations war about reputation. The brouhaha wasn’t as public as some such battles – largely because Hubspot isn’t a consumer company  — but it made the rounds in technology circles faster than new malware and probably caused at least as much grief.

It also offers some learnings for communicators.

To recap, Lyons is a 52-year-old technology writer known for the Fake Steve Jobs blog and his work at Newsweek. After he became a casualty of the magazine’s decline three years ago, Lyons did something a little unusual for a middle-aged journalist. He joined a tech startup.

His stint at Hubspot didn’t last very long, but it produced a terrific book about the experience, Disrupted: My Misadventure in The Startup Bubble, a scathing takedown of startup culture. In the words of ex-New York Times writer Nick Bilton, the book shows “how ridiculous, wasteful, and infantile tech start-ups like this can be.”

Ouch. In defending its reputation, Hubspot did many things right, as outlined below. But at least one Hubspotter did something colossally dumb in advance of the book’s publication. According to records released by the FBI in response to a FOIA request, one or more Hubspot executives tried to use extortion to gain access to the book before it was published, and to derail its publication. The ultimate result was the departure of two key executives, a fine for the CEO and a huge black eye for Hubspot. Not to mention the ultimate PR gift for Lyons and his book.

So when the book hit (initially through an excerpt in Fortune), there was plenty of interest. Here’s my take on what to do – or not – if your reputation is threatened by a credible critic.

Defend yourself. And do it quickly and respectfully. After the book’s publication Hubspot CTO Dharmesh Shah posted a response on LinkedIn that was humble to a fault and (mostly) transparent. It defends the Hubspot culture, language, and business practices while acknowledging mistakes. Importantly, Shah invokes third-party data and sources when pointing out Hubspot’s reputation as a good place to work and explains internal communications quirks.

If anything, the post is almost too detailed in cataloging and admitting flaws, with one exception. And it errs by treating more trivial criticisms (like saying people “graduate” when fired) alongside far harsher challenges to its core business (that “inbound marketing” is really just glorified spam.)

Take the high road. Shah’s response to the controversy was a model of restraint when it comes to tone. But he also acknowledged the most substantive point in Lyons’ recounting of his experience, which is the tech industry’s stunning lack of diversity. That was a good start. But only a start.

Empower advocates to help. Letting friends and clients help fight your battles is a time-honored way to defend against public criticism, and some of those attempts were successful. Case in point: David Meerman Scott’s review of the book, which gently mocked Lyons’s tone and weighed in from Scott’s own very positive experience as a Hubspot partner. Fair enough.

But don’t overreact. Other responses weren’t so controlled. One former Hubspot contractor posted an indignant rebuttal, headlined Working For This Startup Isn’t Hell — You’re Just Old.  Strictly speaking, the post was from an advocate, not the company, but the “old” insult isn’t helpful, particularly given the one charge in the book most likely to stick: that Hubspot’s culture, like much of the tech industry, is blithely ageist.

Be transparent. Perhaps the company can’t be blamed for the behavior of a single executive (or two) but Hubspot has never addressed the FBI investigation. There may be legal reasons not to disclose details, but its utter absence from the LinkedIn response is like a giant elephant in the room. What does such blatantly unethical behavior say about Hubspot’s business culture? At the very least the company should acknowledge that the executives are gone because it won’t tolerate dirty dealing.

Fix the problem. I loved the book, but much of the criticism is about style, and some is even shallow. It’s easy to satirize the startup scene – with its company jargon, acronyms, founder-worship, and general “drink the Kool-Aid” culture. But the charge that’s definitely not shallow is about tech’s diversity problem. If Hubspot sincerely wants to rise above the reputation challenge issued in Lyons’ book, it will take more concrete and measurable steps to build a more inclusive workplace environment, instead of just a fun and spirited one.

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