Boardroom decisions can often haunt PR pros

Tough choices are a part of life. And I’ve faced plenty. But some haunt me more than others.

Tough choices are a part of life. And I’ve faced plenty. But some haunt me more than others.

I was running the communications function for Nissan North America in 1992 when Los Angeles erupted in flames, looting, and violence.

After the National Guard was finally called in, 53 people had been killed, more than 2,000 injured, and over $1 billion in property damage incurred.

Nissan’s headquarters was located in an area not far from the violence. Our executive team had gathered on the top floor the day the disturbances broke out, and we watched the flames and smoke rise like a scene from a war movie. The aftermath was devastating, the city was hurting, and we felt the need to do something.

Our US-based CEO acted swiftly and committed a multi-million dollar donation to help the recovery. He determined that we should give the money to a leading LA community organization, whose leader had a relationship with our CEO.

I was put in charge of the project and asked to structure how the funds would be administered, what the governance system would look like, and how and when to announce it. I pulled together a small group of Nissan employees from the communities that were most affected, and solicited their opinions on how best to apply the funds.

Much to my surprise, the four employees were not pleased with the decision to funnel the funding through this one prominent organization. Their feeling was that the group was old school and conservative, that it was too tied to the political and corporate establishment, and that it was out of touch with the neighborhoods where suffering had fomented this outburst.

I agonized over what to do. I had pulled together an action group to solicit opinions, and their main input was that we had made a mistake. They were advocating that we create our own foundation, create a diverse board of community leaders, and provide grants to more grassroots, neighborhood-based nonprofits. After much deliberation, I concluded to heed their advice, and told our CEO we should change the plan and create our own foundation instead.

He was not happy, particularly since he had already expressed to the leader of the nonprofit that we would be making a large donation. He pressed me hard, dug into my logic, and questioned the implications of the change, how it would be perceived publicly, and whether or not my focus group of four employees was a legitimate sample size. I held my ground and argued passionately for changing course.

Finally, he relented, and then said: "But you’re going to have to meet with the leader of the organization and tell him he’s not getting the money."

I gulped and said of course. My meeting with the community leader was a disaster. He was shocked, hurt, and ultimately furious. He dressed me down in a way that made me question whether I had indeed made a terrible mistake in judgment.

Nissan established its foundation, grants were given, and time moved on. The CEO and I remained close, and my career advanced. But to this day, I am not sure I made the right decision.

I don’t know if our series of smaller grants to numerous organizations had real impact or if our strategy to bypass an established partner was a good one. Most of all, I can’t stop thinking of the hurt I caused to a man who had dedicated his life to making our city a better place to live. And that haunts me.  

Don Spetner is a senior corporate adviser with Weber Shandwick. He was previously CCO and CMO for Korn/Ferry International. He can be reached at

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