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Leadership lessons to take from HyperSocial CEO’s teary viral misstep


By Aaron Kwittken, Founder and Chief Executive Officer

August 18, 2022 | 3 min read

A chief exec’s viral misstep provides valuable lessons for humble leadership, writes PR pro Aaron Kwittken.

Illustration of man lying in a puddle of his own tears

The LinkedIn post backfired on HyperSocial CEO Braden Wallake / Adobe Stock

Former US Congressmen JC Watts once said: “Character is doing the right thing when nobody’s looking.” Well, what if you actively promote to others the “right thing” you think you did?

That’s what HyperSocial chief executive Braden Wallake did last week in a LinkedIn post featuring a crying selfie, posted after firing two employees with a message that read: “I just want people to see that not every CEO out there is cold-hearted and doesn’t care when he/she has to lay people off.”

Wallake’s post serves as a cautionary PR and communications tale for executives and leadership teams around the intersectionality between vulnerability and humility – and the interdependent nature of authenticity and intent.

Wallake’s post caught fire with more than 10,000 comments and 1,000 shares to date, replete with reactions that span the spectrum, ranging from small praise and gratitude to extreme contempt and disapproval. Mainstream media coverage followed, most of which was negative in nature, positing that Wallake’s move was a tone-deaf PR stunt that severely backfired on the millennial executive.

While I don’t know Wallake or his real intent, I don’t suspect there was the malice of forethought or self-aggrandizement behind his misguided post. As a digital marketer himself, he should have known that intent is the root of authenticity and any hint of theatrics, self-centeredness or victimhood spells bad news for credibility and influence. In other words, regardless of Wallake’s intent, his post came off as narcissistic, self-centered, deeply inorganic, stunty and overtly theatrical. A big miss.

Here’s the cautionary tale for leadership:

  1. The most credible posts are candid shots from others – not from you. Don’t actively promote your alleged humanity and virtue yourself. It will always land as exploitative and insincere

  2. Never try to flip the script and portray yourself as a victim. If you have power and agency, you are not the victim

  3. Focus communications on internal engagement and not external validation at another’s expense – especially your employees’

Ironically, the internet has a memory like an elephant. Wallake will have to hire a digital marketing agency to wipe away the tears of criticism ‘following‘ him and his brand. The question is: would you now hire him to help you manage your brand online?

Aaron Kwittken is founder and chairman of KWT Global, founder and chief executive officer at PRophet and president at PRSA-New York.

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