The NBA acted quickly this week to rid itself of the odious Donald Sterling, heading off a huge threat to its standing with fans and players.

And in this era of ubiquitous social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook, what's true for a highly public organization such as professional basketball is true for every company, no matter how obscure: Reputations matter, perhaps more than ever, and companies need to take action quickly when their reputation is at stake or they may not survive.

Take the recent cases of Brendan Eich, Tom Preston-Werner and Gurbaksh Chahal.

The three were chief executives and founders of local tech firms who either resigned or were booted from their companies after their actions became fodder for the Twitterati.

"Twitter and the proliferation of Internet trolls ready to pounce on every reputation misstep now means you can lose your good name in milliseconds," said Howard Fencl of Hennes Paynter Communications, a crisis communications firm.

Mozilla, GitHub and RadiumOne are not exactly household names. But even for them, notoriety can hurt. It can make potential recruits, partners and customers wary and spook investors, who feel "headline pressure," crisis experts say.

"What we've seen are three companies that are hypersensitive to damage," said Larry Kamer, who runs his own crisis management consultancy and teaches at the University of San Francisco. "Reputation cuts across all of the things tech cares about, whether it is being hip, cool and innovative, their ability to raise money, and how they look to competitors."


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The details of the recent tech cases vary greatly. But the end results were the same: chief executives gone, corporate cultures upended and the companies trying to figure out a path forward, given their new notoriety.

"You could say that the consumer companies are used to the scrutiny," said Alfred DuPuy, managing director in the Toronto office of Interbrand, a global brand consultancy. But controversies "make these companies that no one hears about actually household names. They become poster children for all kinds of issues."

Last month, Eich resigned from Mozilla, best known as the maker of the Firefox browser, after more than a week in the CEO role. He and Mozilla found themselves embroiled in a controversy over his 2008 contribution to an anti-gay marriage campaign. Employees and customers vigorously debated whether Eich should stay or go. When Eich left, the company said it didn't do enough to live up to its ideals.

At GitHub, a service for collaborating on software code, Preston-Werner resigned amid accusations from a former employee about gender bias and harassment in the workplace. The company said a report it commissioned found no evidence to support claims Preston-Werner harassed the employee or discriminated against her, but he resigned after the investigation found "evidence of mistakes and errors of judgment," according to a blog post from the firm's new chief executive, Chris Wanstrath. The company posted more information about its internal investigation this week. In it, Wanstrath outlined findings from an investigation that Preston-Werner "acted inappropriately, including confrontational conduct," among other things.

And last weekend, the board of RadiumOne, an Internet advertising firm, fired Chahal after he pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors of battery and domestic violence after being accused of more than 40 felonies related to an assault on his girlfriend.

RadiumOne's case was more clear cut, according to corporate crisis experts. The nature of the crime raised questions about the entire corporate culture and the board needed to move fast, as the discussion among columnists, bloggers and on Twitter heated up. Adding to the pressure, RadiumOne is reportedly preparing to go public.

For his part, in tweets that have since been deleted, Chahal said, "Is the Internet this stupid to read one side of the story by tabloids vs. the actual truth?"

The swift action in the three examples show that "technology has elevated the importance of a brand," said DuPuy. People now want quick action, whether it is a Donald Sterling or a GitHub, he said. "That level of expectation is not on a gradient."

So everyone is on notice -- even you, obscure company that sells widgets or unknown business enterprise startup.

A tweet or Facebook blog post by or about your chief executive could put the firm in the headlines.

And you won't know if the organization experienced heartburn or a heart attack until it's long over.

Contact Michelle Quinn at 510-394-4196 and mquinn@mercurynews.com. Follow her at Twitter.com/michellequinn.