Spetner: Sometimes in PR, you can't win them all

Spetner recalls a time when he found the emperor had no clothes, and why it really didn't matter

I once told an emperor he had no clothes, and it didn't go so well. It might have been the way I told him. 

I was working for Nissan, reporting to the CEO of U.S. operations. He was a charismatic and commanding leader who had been brought in to jump-start a moribund culture, and he didn't mind making tough decisions or slaughtering sacred cows. 

Shortly after assuming his post, he became enamored with a local nonprofit that brought celebrities and athletes together to help disadvantaged kids. It seemed like a great organization, and our CEO wanted to use it to instill a more philanthropic culture. He directed us to provide a significant donation, and asked my department to create a program for employees to volunteer their time working with the nonprofit. He even provided the charity with free office space in our headquarters. And he put me in charge of the relationship. 

Our director of community relations made the charity her top priority, and assembled a team to support it. We quickly hosted and sponsored a few events. Employees were excited by the chance to help needy kids and by the celebrity glamour. 

But things began to go awry. The charity's president, while well intentioned, was an organizational mess and difficult to work with. She was loose with her facts, overly aggressive, and a really poor listener. I personally struggled with her operating style. She would often disregard my advice, and if she didn't like my decision, she would go directly to the CEO to get her way. 

More alarmingly, employees were beginning to complain, and people on my team were getting stressed. 

When I mentioned it to our CEO, he bristled. He felt I wasn't trying hard enough to make the relationship work, that my staff should be doing a better job, and that it was up to me to get things righted. 

But the relationship continued to devolve, and my annoyance increased. I was irked by her disrespect and refusal to heed my advice. But I knew it was important to make the relationship work, so I stuck with it. When concerns about governance and record keeping began to surface, however, I decided it was time to confront our CEO. I told him the charity president was unprofessional, the charity was not providing needed services, and our company was at risk because of the relationship. 

I then steeled my courage, and told him I thought it was reflecting poorly on him personally. 

He did not react well, and essentially ordered me to "fix it." At my annual performance review, he dinged me for my handling of the relationship with the charity. 

I was steaming. I felt it was his poor judgment that created this mess, yet I was being criticized for not making it work. I've thought a lot about this incident over the years and how I might have handled it differently. I realize that my emotional reaction to the woman not only impaired my ability to be objective, it also impaired my credibility with the CEO. I should have been more analytical and fact-based, and kept my personal feelings in check.           

A few months after my review, the Los Angeles Times ran a prominent article on the charity that raised numerous issues about its bookkeeping and efficacy. Shortly after the article, we began to exit the relationship. 

Looking back, I wonder if I could have convinced my boss this was never a good venture. But then again, maybe the emperor just loved his new clothes.

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