Big companies abound with problems. They are also filled with bureaucrats who are adept at avoiding these problems, and happy to offload a difficult issue.
My first big communications job was with Nissan, and I was too naive to understand this dynamic, so I raised my hand for everything. This got me involved in a multitude of weird, interesting, and compelling projects.
One of the first had to do with a Japanese researcher who came to California to study how Americans used their cars. He stayed with a local family and took copious notes about its daily habits. The family discovered our researcher was keeping a journal, and promptly sued Nissan for "spying" on it. I got to take the lead on our response.
Later came an incident during employee orientation. A training session was being held on how to use company email (this was 1990, so email was still fairly revolutionary), and the facilitator randomly opened a note sent from a Nissan staffer to a dealership employee.
Unfortunately, the email she selected turned out to be of a "personal, sexual nature, and not business related," according to a lawsuit later filed. After the author of the email was terminated, she sued Nissan for invasion of privacy. I was asked to coordinate our public stance on the issue.
We had a director of product safety who would constantly come to me with potential issues. One morning he cornered me and said, "We just discovered that if you are in an extremely hot climate and open the fuel lid of a fully-gassed [Datsun] 280Z, the petrol will leap out at you." I was fairly freaked out until he noted very few people pop the fuel lid when the gas tank is full, and the outside temperature must be at least 110 degrees for the gas to "leap."
One year, we had a series of sizable checks disappear that were supposed to have been mailed to dealers. We isolated the department handling the checks and installed a hidden video camera to track the culprit. Sure enough, we caught an administrative assistant on film, surreptitiously removing and destroying checks. When confronted with the evidence, she confessed she was locked in a fierce spat with a colleague and was trying to get her nemesis fired by making the checks disappear.
[Issues that carry reputational risk] test a company’s values and purpose, and how it chooses to respond is often a reflection on the essence of the organization.Don Spetner, senior corporate advisor, Weber Shandwick
I was reminded of these stories recently when I had lunch with a friend who oversees comms for a big industrial company. She told me a factory worker in her firm had placed a sticker on his hard hat declaring he was transgender and that he identified as a him. The plant manager was in a quandary, because policy dictated no decals of any kind are allowed on company hard hats. So the manager kicked the issue up the ladder.
"But why did this end up on my desk?" my friend asked. "I’m not in charge of HR, labor relations, or manufacturing."
I suspect there are at least two reasons this issue fell in my friend’s lap. To begin with, she is a savvy professional who is well respected within her company. She is known as a problem solver who is willing to take a stand, so it makes sense to get her involved.
But, more importantly, these issues that are coming her way carry reputational risk. They test a company’s values and purpose, and how it chooses to respond is often a reflection on the essence of the organization.
In the end, that is exactly what a head of communications should be focused on.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.