How David Tovar came back from a personal brand disaster

The former Walmart comms VP on getting in front of a personal crisis and overcoming it. Plus, five reputation management must-dos.

Last September, David Tovar was flying high in his role at Walmart as VP of comms, and was up for a promotion to SVP.

But during a routine background check, Walmart executives found he had lied on his résumé about earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of Delaware in 1996. He had, in fact, never completed his undergraduate degree in arts.

After an eight-year stint with the world’s biggest company, he promptly resigned.

"I have dealt with many crises in my professional life, but this was the hardest, because it was about me," says Tovar. "Any good comms pro will tell you the PR person should not be the story; that is rule number one, which I clearly violated."

Fortunately for Tovar, he had his training to rely on.

"When the issue was raised, I immediately decided the right thing to do to manage it was be completely transparent and tell people that I made a mistake – no excuses," he adds. "I honestly felt I owed it to my team, colleagues, peers, supervisors, and to myself to be upfront."

His first course of action was to get out in front of the crisis so he could tell his own story, acknowledge the mistakes he made, and talk about the actions he was going to take to remedy the situation.

This included a vast amount of media relations, and taking interviews with the likes of The New York Times and Bloomberg. His next move was to completely "take the conversation off the table," by getting his degree. Tovar documented the experience in a personal blog.  When he earned his degree in February, he included a picture of it in his blog and posted it on his Twitter page.

However, he now had to prove himself to potential employers. So he began networking and going to job interviews. Tovar says he was not afraid or embarrassed to proactively bring up his lie. But he also wanted to make sure his mistake didn’t dwarf his accomplished career history. 

"Recruiters may have been asking themselves, ‘Is this a blip on the radar screen or is this a bigger issue about this person’s character?,’" he says. "So I wanted to make sure everyone knew about [my achievements] throughout my 18-year career."

But not every organization was wowed by Tovar’s strategy. He acknowledges there are some brands that would not be open to employing him following his fib.

"Depending on the culture or company or the hiring manager or CEO, there are some brands out there that wouldn’t look to me right now, but that will abate itself as time progresses and I continue my career," Tovar says.

A big break, however, came for the former Walmart exec. At the time, Sprint was conducting an agency review and Tovar was introduced to the company as a reference for Golin, a firm he had worked with during his time at Walmart.

Doug Michelman, Sprint’s SVP of corporate comms, says that, although he knew about Tovar’s blunder, some of the work he had done in his career consisted of "the most brilliant PR moves I had ever seen."

Aggressive pursuit
Michelman says he was impressed with Tovar during the Golin conversation, and "aggressively pursued" him to join Sprint as VP of corporate communications. Tovar joined the company in late July.

"The [lie] came up with me, our CEO, and head of HR, but all of us were quite satisfied with what we heard from Dave and our own research about him," explains Michelman. "He came across as a stand-up guy who took responsibility for his actions and could be trusted."

The onus was now on Michelman to gain acceptance of his new hire from Sprint staffers. He brought them up to speed on Tovar’s background and encouraged them to approach him with any questions or concerns. More than two months into his role, Tovar says he continues to be upfront with colleagues about his background.

Former Toyota CCO Julie Hamp faces a similar challenge as she tries to rebuild her reputation after allegedly importing oxycodone into Tokyo. Hamp resigned shortly after the incident in late June.

Reputation management must-dos

  1. Own your mistake and apologize for it

  2. Tell people what you have learned from it so others can avoid making similar mistakes

  3. Self-impose your own penalty before someone else does it for you

  4. Let others know what you are going to do to make the situation right

  5. And finally, don’t let the initial mistake define you. America loves a great comeback story

Source: French | West | Vaughan chairman and CEO Rick French

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