SAN FRANCISCO: The morning of January 8, Wells Fargo technology services manager Holly Waters received an email from a colleague wishing her a happy birthday.
The problem? All 250,000 of Wells Fargo's employees across the country received the same email.
Initially, it was a communications disaster. Inboxes maxed out as hundreds of people were "replying all," either sending well wishes to Waters or asking to be removed from the email chain.
Barri Rafferty, Wells Fargo's head of communications and former Ketchum CEO, had received the same email, but she saw an opportunity.
"We talked to our tech team who were trying to fix the issue, but saw people were having fun with it internally," Rafferty said, adding she had a choice to make. "Do you take it as a mistake or do you lean into it and turn a mistake into a happy day?"
By that afternoon, a Wells Fargo business banker had posted about the email gaffe on LinkedIn, garnering more than 300 replies, 1,500 likes and numerous shares. On Twitter, the conversation grew to a nationally trending topic as users poked fun at the mistake with #HappyBirthdayHolly, #HollyDay and #WellsFargoHolly.
Rafferty quickly had Wells Fargo's social accounts acknowledge and make light of the situation, wishing Holly a belated happy birthday. The company's LinkedIn post has received more than 1,000 comments, 7,000 likes, 550,000 impressions and 183 shares since its posting.
After gaining her permission, Wells Fargo's internal news site wrote a story introducing Waters to the rest of the company, and it became one of the most-read stories.
“It’s not the birthday I expected when the day began, but the outpouring of support from across the company certainly made it one to remember,” Waters said in response.
Taking it one step further, Rafferty partnered with WellsWare, the Well Fargo merchandise store, to create "Happy Birthday, Holly" t-shirts and mugs. Proceeds from the sales go to the WE Care fund, Wells Fargo's program that provides financial grants to help employees with expenses caused by a disaster situation.
At the company's town hall last week, which included about 40,000 people, Wells Fargo CEO Charles Scharf even held up a t-shirt and wished Waters a happy birthday.
So far, more than 1,000 mugs and almost 700 shirts have sold, raising nearly $10,000 for the WE Care Fund.
The Wells Fargo technology department also took the opportunity to fix the glitch in the email system and educate employees on some email tips.
The decision to make light of such a disastrous situation was an easy one, according to Rafferty.
"After a year of so many serious topics, this provided a bit of positive release for our employees, and it showed we could laugh a little bit," she said, stressing the importance of being agile as a communicator. "By poking fun at yourself, it's a nice way for a brand to take on more personal characteristics, which is not always easy."