Target CMO Sends a Powerful Message to PR Field

Posted on May 20, 2014 
Filed Under General

Rumors continue to swirl that Target CMO Jeff Jones may be named as the company’s new CEO.

Target is looking to fill the top slot after it announced earlier this month that CEO Greg Steinhafel had stepped down.

Steinhafel’s departure was precipitated by a massive security breach late last year in which hackers may have gained access to millions of customer credit and debit card records.

If Jones does get the nod as CEO, we’d like to think his response to an anonymous employee’s complaint (via Gawker) had something to do with the decision.

Indeed, the response may help Jones ascend to the top spot of the second largest discount retailer in the U.S.—and serve as a watershed for communicators and PR pros grappling with how to communicate with critics in an increasingly digital age.

The episode stems from an anonymous email Gawker received from a “mid-level employee” at Target’s headquarters in Minnesota.

The email does not paint a very flattering portrait of Target, saying the company prizes conformity above all else.

“You’re penalized and viewed as unfriendly and not a team player if you spend too much time in your cube working and not enough time socializing,” the email said.

The email also stressed that senior management at Target is essentially clueless about how to pivot the retailer, which dates back to 1902.

“Former [CEO] Greg Steinhafel getting fired was a good step, along with the CIO being fired a few months ago, but it’s not enough. The entire executive team with the exception of the CMO Jeff Jones needs to go. Why? Because everyone was homegrown and ‘Targetized’ and has no concept of how to run a 21st century business,” the email added.

Jones saw his opening and ran with it.

Rather than put out a news release about how the company is turning things around, Jones responded via a LinkedIn “influencer” post with the title, “The Truth Hurts.”

The post is remarkable for its candor. “And while it was difficult for me to read this account for many reasons, the reality is that our team members speaking with honesty is a gift. Because much of what they are saying is true.”

He added: “The culture of Target is an enormous strength and might be our current Achilles heel. In the coming days and weeks we will embrace the critiques of Target—whether it’s from outsiders or our own team—like an athletics team puts the negative press on the wall in the locker room.”

You know what they say about not letting a crisis go to waste.

But, perhaps more important, Jones’ response could serve as a model for PR pros and brand managers who realize that the current marketplace demands more of a warts-and-all approach to communications (as opposed to airbrushing the corporate blemishes).

Jones may or may not land the CEO gig at Target, but our guess is that he’ll be an integral part of the new regime at Target.

However things shake out, he’s provided some invaluable tips for PR execs who realize that traditional ways of communicating with irate customers (and employees) no longer cut it.

Here are some takeaways:

> When your brand is called on the carpet by critics (anonymous or not, in-house or external), use the criticism as a springboard for some soul-searching about your brand.

> When your brand is criticized don’t get into a defensive crouch. Look at the criticism as an opportunity to tell your story more effectively and meet the critics head-on.

> Corporate managers who grew up in the analog age were conditioned not to admit their mistakes. They also were made to feel like failure was somehow a fate worse than death. But, in a digital age, it’s just the opposite. Consumers embrace brands that own their mistakes and seem to put more faith in companies and organizations that aren’t cowed by failure, but, instead, use it as a communications tool.

What would you add to the list?

Follow Matthew Schwartz on Twitter: @mpsjourno1

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