Navigating Divisive Issues - How Web Summit's Cosgrove is a Cautionary Tale
CEOs serve as the public face of the company, and their beliefs and values reflect directly on the company itself. When global events impact the company’s ecosystem, it becomes imperative for the CEO to issue a statement.
Most issues are not simply black and white, rather they exist in various shades of gray. Moreover, companies also have underlying considerations that influence their statements, including their stakeholders, employees, and strategic objectives. If the CEO holds a personal opinion that is likely to alienate stakeholders and employees or disrupt the progression of objectives, then it is advisable to exercise discretion.
The Web Summit Debacle
Recent events at the Web Summit unfolded for the world to witness, all caused by the co-founder and CEO, Paddy Cosgrave. One of the largest technology conferences in the world, the Summit brings together a diverse range of participants, from entrepreneurs, startups, and investors to technology enthusiasts, and professionals from various industries.
The event has been held annually for over a decade, and it has proven to be an amazing opportunity for knowledge-sharing, networking, and collaboration among individuals and organizations in the technology and startup ecosystem.
So what happened this year that made big-name tech companies like Amazon, TikTok, Stripe, Google, Intel, Meta, and so many others pull out of attending this massive summit? The CEO’s remarks on social media regarding a geopolitical situation. The divisive and alienating tweets of Paddy Cosgrave, on an event that was not within his company’s ecosystem: the situation in southern Israel.
Israel’s Significance in the Tech World
October 7, 2023, was a devastating day for the Israeli people – over 1,400 people were murdered and roughly 240 civilians were kidnapped after a terrorist breach and attack on their soil. Israel has a long and complicated political history, which is beyond the scope of this blog and best suited for private conversations among like-minded individuals.
Paddy Cosgrave’s major misstep was taking this conversation to his international platform on X, formally known as Twitter, and broadcasting his views regarding the matter to the world, including his Israeli audience and prospective attendees.
It is crucial to acknowledge Israel’s moniker as Startup Nation, leading the world in startups per capita. The country is a technological powerhouse, credited with pioneering critical and indispensable technologies that have become integral to our daily lives. These include instant messaging platforms, Face ID, camera phones, as well as foundational software like Intel computer chips, Windows XP, and Windows NT, and security firewalls, among a plethora of other innovations.
The Fallout of Cosgrave’s Tweets
On the day of the attack, before Israel had responded to the security situation, Paddy did not hesitate to voice his opinions, posting a chart on X of a 15-year comparison of casualties between Israelis and Palestinians. For many Israelis, this was seen as a legitimization of the terrorist attack that occurred in Israel that day.
For the next six days, he continued to post numerous tweets criticizing Israel. Then on October 13, his tweet criticizing Western governments for standing by Israel in their time of need went viral. His onslaught of tweets and comments regarding this situation not only affected his Israeli audience but also international companies, many of which had strong ties to Israel because of its inherent association with the tech world. As a result, individuals and businesses started announcing their withdrawal from the Web Summit.
In an attempt to backpedal from this PR catastrophe, Cosgrave tweeted a two-word message “My apology” followed by a link to a blog posted on the Web Summit’s URL. While an attempt at remorse, it ultimately fell short. One particular sentence, “I understand that what I said, the timing of what I said, and the way it has been presented has caused profound hurt to many”, was widely perceived as insincere.
Ultimately, on October 22, 2023, Paddy Cosgrave resigned from his position as CEO, hoping that the summit was somehow salvageable. The Web Summit is still scheduled to take place on November 13, 2023 in Lisbon, Portugal. While many of the participants remain resolute in their decision to not attend, there are some who have re-purchased their tickets. On the day after his resignation, Monday, October 23, more conference tickets were sold than on any other Monday this year.
When Not to Respond
But why did Cosgrave respond at all? This entire fiasco could have been avoided if Cosgrave refrained from posting his tweets. Neither Paddy Cosgrave nor the Web Summit have any known affiliations or ties with Israel/Palestine or any employees within the region. The barrage of tweets was perhaps a product of the heat of the moment and ended up sealing Cosgrave’s fate with his departure as CEO from the Web Summit.
CEOs should be aware of their audience and niche, refraining from commenting on matters unrelated to their business. It is imperative for a CEO to remember that anything made public directly impacts the brand. In the case of a company in the renewable energy sector, voicing concerns during an environmental crisis is not just a choice, but a responsibility. It must also be remembered that every post will be memorialized on the internet forever.
Therefore, as a CEO, one must recognize that speaking on any topic requires careful consideration. Apologizing after the fact is rarely perceived as genuine or authentic – as seen by Cosgrave’s attempt.
Every message should have this in mind and risk assessment should be done on each message. It is advisable to draft posts on a separate platform, such as a notes app or Microsoft Word. Seek the opinion of a trustworthy third party, and make adjustments accordingly. Send only if the message directly reflects the ideology of the company, not simply the CEO.
Sometimes the issue is not so cut and dry. Many high-tech companies commented on the October 7 attacks, although their product is not related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, high-tech companies that employ Israelis have an obligation to their employees and must nurture a positive working relationship. On the day of the attack Google, Microsoft, and many others released concise public statements condemning the attacks. These statements were followed by private letters expressing condolences to their Israeli employees.
CEOs must recognize that employees, investors, and other stakeholders come from diverse backgrounds. The CEO role requires a high EQ (emotional intelligence quotient), which is paramount for maintaining strong relationships, and for fostering respect and mutual understanding – inevitably ensuring the longevity of the company.
An Avoidable Ending
Paddy Cosgrave is a cautionary tale, highlighting the necessity of forward thinking and high EQ. CEOs are constantly viewed as representatives of the company. When addressing complex issues, sharing personal opinions written in the heat of the moment can have adverse consequences. By being pragmatic as well as emotionally intelligent, CEOs can safeguard their company’s reputation and maintain trust with stakeholders, ultimately ensuring a prosperous and harmonious future.