5 communication lessons from Target’s chief marketing officer

A frustrated Target employee sent an email to Gawker ranting about the retail store’s corporate culture. Target’s CMO responded perfectly.

A lot has been said about Target in crisis. First there was Target’s data breach, then the CEO’s resignation (firing?) and now the release of an email written by an employee who works at Target’s headquarters.

It’s been a rough year for Target, and the retail giant has quickly become the store we love to hate.

There are three stories humans love:

  • The David beats Goliath story.
  • The story’s unraveling once David becomes Goliath.
  • The great rebuilding.

Target is experiencing the second story right now. We’re all watching with glee-and sitting in armchairs quarterbacking-as the company figures out what’s next.

In “Predictable Success,” Les McKeown calls this stage of a company’s life “the big rut,” which means it is only one stage from the “death rattle.”

Target has to do something—quickly.

One employee; one story

Three weeks ago, Gawker published an email that a Target employee sent anonymously. At the end of the email the person writes: “I think I’ve rambled enough—even if you don’t publish this, it was therapeutic to write it all down.”

Well, Gawker did publish it-in its entirety.

If you haven’t yet read it, go read it and then come back.

The employee who wrote the email strikes me as someone who doesn’t really understand how a business is run, or the basic financial requirements of a company. This person strikes me as someone who feels entitled to what he or she assumes is great success on the part of the company.

The hair on the back of my neck stood up when I read the complaints about how the leadership team requires new employees to get to know their teams in the first few weeks of work.

No! Not that! Heaven forbid you meet your colleagues on other teams and learn about what they do. On the flip side, organizations that are more focused on butts in seats than results get under my skin.

I wrote off the email as an unhappy employee who figured he had a platform within a large blog and went for it.

And then I read the response from Target’s chief marketing officer, Jeff Jones.

The truth hurts

While the employee’s email is whiny and not well written or thought out, it sounds like some of what the employee wrote is true.

Jones’ response, titled “The Truth Hurts,” describes a culture that is broken. It describes a leadership team in turmoil. It describes declining morale that could be hurt even more if the board decides to hire a CEO from outside the company instead of promoting from within. It describes Target in crisis.

It then describes what the organization has to do next:

“But the very real fact of the matter remains, we have hard work to do. The kind of work that is unafraid to challenge what we’ve known and what has worked in the past. The kind of work that expects more than ever from our team, and ourselves. The kind of work that will be uncomfortable, in order to make Target irresistible.”

It’s the perfect response to negative criticism.

Five lessons from Target in crisis

In chapter 7 of my book, “Spin Sucks,” the section called “Your Brand is How Customers Feel about You” explains what to do when a customer or, in this case an employee, openly criticizes you.

Jones did exactly what we would have advised him if he were a client. Here is what you can learn from his communications:

1. Be vigilant: Jones listened. His team monitored. He was criticized and, while he admits he was angry at first, he didn’t let his emotions rule his response.

2. Be honest: Jones admitted Target has a cultural issue. He outlined the challenges. He didn’t let the pain of what is to come hinder him, nor did he let the ensuing comments stop him (and there were some doozies).

3. Be open: He showed he’s willing to talk about the issues, and even talked about how Target will change policies based on this feedback.

4. Be active: While I would have recommended Jones respond directly to Gawker (where the original criticism appeared), that’s a small strategic difference. Jones took to his publishing platform on LinkedIn, where he is already active.

5. Be proud: Jones ended his response with a rally cry to his team, the hundreds of thousands of Target employees and the customers. While he knows the next several months will be tough, he is proud to work at Target and with the people around him.

It’s easy to pay attention to what your customers say about you online. It’s easy to participate in the conversation.

Sometimes it’s hard to hear customers’ wants and needs, but if you really listen, they can help you with customer service, new products/services, market research and even cultural change.

Control is out. Empowerment is the new black.

Gini Dietrich is founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, Inc. A version of this article originally appeared on Spin Sucks.

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