Why Target chose to unveil new CEO through traditional media

Target broke the news about Brian Cornell joining the company as chair and CEO through the unexpected route of traditional media to highlight the importance of the announcement.

MINNEAPOLIS: Target broke the news about Brian Cornell joining the company as chair and CEO through the unexpected route of traditional media to highlight the importance of the announcement.

The news about Cornell, who previously served as chief exec of PepsiCo Americas Foods, was published in the print edition of The Wall Street Journal over night and on the paper’s website early Thursday morning.

"We purposefully wanted print to lead in this announcement, which you just don’t see happen that often anymore," said Dustee Jenkins, VP of PR and social business strategy at Target. "While we recognize how quickly stories can move online, given how important this decision is for our company and across retail, we specifically worked with WSJ on a meaningful way to announce it."

Target is positioning its incoming CEO, who will officially join the company on August 12, as someone who will transform and lead the retailer into the future.

Cornell succeeds the company’s former president and CEO Gregg Steinhafel, who left in May after last year’s data breach. The incident exposed the credit-and debit-card data of 40 million customers, and compromised a second batch of data with the personal information of 70 million people. CFO John Mulligan has handled the CEO role in the interim.

Target’s in-house PR team is handling comms surrounding the company’s leadership transition, said Jenkins.

"The main message we want to get across through this announcement is that Target recognizes we have work to do," said Jenkins. "We have talked about the need to improve our traffic and sales in the US, the need to turn Canada around, and about the importance of getting our omni-channel presence right."

She added that Cornell "is known as a dynamic, transformational leader, and as the kind of guy you want to get behind, so we are excited to be holding him up as someone who is going to lead Target into the future."

In addition to the traditional media announcement, Target sent out a press release Thursday morning, outlining Cornell’s top priorities of accelerating the company’s performance and advancing Target’s "omni-channel evolution," which focuses on making shoppers’ experiences seamless and convenient.  

This was followed an hour later with a Q&A featuring Cornell, which was published on the retailer’s online magazine A Bullseye View. The site was created to give the retailer an opportunity to share news in a more "editorial" way, said Jenkins.

The Q&A, conducted by Jenkins, was used to educate the public on Cornell’s background, his priorities for the company, and what Target "can look forward to" as he joins the team, she explained.

"Bullseye was intentionally created so we can be a bit more conversational and share a bit more about the people at Target," said Jenkins. "We felt it was the right forum for [Cornell] to do an interview."

The Q&A acknowledged the fact that Target "needs to transform digitally," and Cornell said advancing Target’s omni-channel presence is "critically" important.

"I have been close to the changes business and consumers have experienced over the last few years, and I have an acute understanding of how important it is to connect stores, online, and mobile," he said in the Q&A.

Internally, Target’s interim non-executive chair Roxanne Austin, who will step back into the position of active board member when Cornell takes over next month, emailed staffers Thursday about his appointment. This was followed with another email to employees from Mulligan.

"Both of those notes talked about how excited they are that [Cornell] has been named to the position, conveyed their confidence in him, and in the case of [Mulligan’s email], really thanked the team for their support of him in the role of interim CEO," Jenkins said.

On Thursday morning, Cornell also initiated an impromptu meet-and-greet with Target staffers at the company’s headquarters. Jenkins said the new CEO felt it was important to be present on the day of the announcement.

"Several hundred people lined up to say hello to him, shake his hand, and take selfies with him," she said. "[Staffers] then shared it out via their social media channels."

Jenkins could not comment on how or if the comms team’s priorities will change under Cornell’s leadership.

"[Cornell] values external comms and understands the importance of media relations and working with various stakeholders, whether they be elected officials or those in the nonprofit community," she said. "He has held a number of high profile leadership positions at various companies, so understands the important role that external comms plays in shaping the public’s view of our brand and his ability to share his message and focus."

Cornell is the first CEO to be hired from outside of Target. At his most recent role at PepsiCo Americas Foods, he oversaw the company’s global food business, the largest of PepsiCo’s four divisions.

Prior to PepsiCo, Cornell served as president and CEO of Sam’s Club. Before that, he was CEO of Michaels Stores, and he also previously served as EVP and CMO for Safeway. 

PepsiCo will announce Cornell's successor soon, the company said in a statement.

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