Gini Dietrich

Target in Crisis: Five Lessons from the Chief Marketing Officer

By: Gini Dietrich | May 27, 2014 | 
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Target in CrisisBy Gini Dietrich

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

It’s been a rough 2014 for the retail giant and they have quickly become the store we love to hate.

There are three stories human beings love: The David beats Goliath story, the great unraveling of the David story once he becomes Goliath, and the great rebuilding.

Target is at the middle story right now. We’re all watching with glee – and sitting on the armchair, quarterbacking – as they figure out what’s next.

Les McKeown, in “Predictable Success,” calls this stage of the company’s life The Big Rut. Which means they’re only one stage from the Death Rattle.

They have to do something. Quickly.

One Employee; One Story

Three weeks ago, Gawker published an email sent to them 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, publish it they did. In its entirety.

If you haven’t yet read it, flip over there (it’s linked in the first sentence of this blog post) and then come back.

It strikes me as an employee who doesn’t really understand how a business is run. It strikes me as someone who doesn’t understand the basic financial requirements of a company. It strikes me as someone who feels entitled to what he or she assumes is great success on the company’s part.

The hair on the back of my neck stood up when I read the complaints about how the leadership team “requires” you to get to know your team in your 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 on results get under my skin.

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

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

The Truth Hurts

While the email from the employee is ranty and whiny and not well written or thought out, it sounds like some of what is in there is true.

The response, titled “The Truth Hurts,” describes a culture that is broken. It describes a leadership team in turmoil. It describes a 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, from a communications perspective.

Five Lessons from Target in Crisis

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

What the Target CMO did was textbook and did exactly as we would have advised him, were he a client.

Here is what you can learn from his communications, as he details his Target in crisis.

  1. Vigilant. He listened. His team monitored. He was named in some of the criticism and, while he admits to being angry at first, he didn’t let his emotions rule his response. 
  2. Honest. He admitted there is 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 (and some of them – wow!) stop him.
  3. Open. He showed a willingness to talk about the issues, and even talked about how they’ll change policies based on this feedback.
  4. Active. While we would have recommended he respond directly to Gawker, which is where the original criticism appeared, that’s a small strategic difference. He took to his publishing platform on LinkedIn, where he is already active.
  5. Proud. He ended his response with a rally cry to his team, to the hundreds of thousands of Target employees, and to the customers. While he knows the next several months are going to be tough, he is proud to work at Target and to work with the people around him.

It’s easy to pay attention to what your customers are saying about you online.

It’s easy to participate in the conversation.

Sometimes it’s hard to hear their 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. Empower is the new black.

Photo credit: That’s my Target!

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • When I read the employee’s email, my thought was this could be written by someone at virtually any large company in America and that he clearly has no clue what is going on in the business world.

    I have a hard time with the Target criticism for one simple reason – as recently as yesterday, our shopping experience at Target is always so very good, especially when compared to anytime we step foot in a Walmart.

    At the end of the day isn’t that what matters?

  • ClayMorgan I also love Target. Chicago won’t allow Wal-Mart into Chicago so we are forced to shop there, even if we don’t want to. But whenever I do go into a Wal-Mart, I feel dirty. It’s grimy.

    That said, they are in trouble. I can’t think of a single company that doesn’t go through this at some point in their growth life. If Jeff Jones has any say, they’ll make it through.

  • ginidietrich ClayMorgan Yes, BUT, what are they really going through? Our “observation” of the corporate “inside” is from an email by an employee that we really know nothing about, other than he doesn’t seem to like his job.

    The data breach? We better get used to it. Has happened before and will happen again. Data breaches are going to be a part of our lives from here on out.

    We know their income is down about 50 percent and overall sales are down too. How long will that last? Are they rebounding? We won’t know the answer to that for a while.

    Folks love to sing kumbaya while the ship is sinking, but sometimes the ship just took on some water, the hole is being plugged and that water is being pumped out.

  • This goes to the heart of why the lifetime value of a customer talk and the lifetime value of a Facebook like is not just BS….it is basically being submerged 3000 feet under 3000 feet of manure and any marketer who has ever blogged about this should never work in marketing…ever….ever….ever. Brands can grow and die so fast in a blink of the eye. Loyalty can and will evaporate with customers over time.

    Rewind 5 years Target is glowing because….people HATE WALMART. And they of course offered the same stuff as Walmart with a bit higher quality. Then 2 years ago Target is in the news for their slick big data targeting of expecting mothers…..and they were one of the first big companies to offer same sex couples benefits and come out in support of gay marriage.

    And now in the blink of an eye…poof all that good will down the tubes? We don’t have a Target in Vermont because they reject unions. Somehow Walmart sneaked in not sure how. I think there are 3-4 stores here. 

    And to me that is the biggest lesson. The rut as Les calls it is really when you rest on your laurels. When Arment Dietrich if finally a world wide PR/Comm agency will you be viewed in the same distasteful way people view Edelman? Probably. With size comes challenges. Someone blogged recently about being nimble…you can’t as a big company. You just can’t be. 

    But remember what I told you ginidietrich ? As a big company you can ‘Don’t do dumb things’ and you can create cultures that support your business. You posted a new Starbucks cup on Facebook…..before the CEO came back to right the ship they were dying….and I bet you were trying out Pete’s Coffee …..and then Howard comes back they hire your barista to save your business. But then always bank on a company with a CEO named Howard to kick butt! Money in the bank! 8)

  • ginidietrich oh and I was serious on the Twitter. Target should hire me. I could right their HQ ship in less than 6 months. But it will be painful for them….but so fun for me!

  • ClayMorgan ginidietrich I agree with Clay. For a big company like Target the employee is speaking for a lot of people. It’s kind of funny that he complained he gets only 2 weeks vacation but also complained they won’t let him work. You would think he would be ecstatic.
    I remember in the dot.com boom Microsoft always was ranked top 3 companies to work for. This was when these things were printed not online and I read the write up and basically 6 days a week for 16-18 hr days you were on the campus of microsoft, But you only worked 8-10 hr days. The rest was spent team building. Your team leader took the team to the movies. One team played a prank on their leader who was a golf freak. They got the groundskeeper to put sod down with a putting green in the guys office. I would rather be home!
    The Economist covers this a lot. The US has much more productivity per worker than Europe, But we work much more. And they bring up the 35 hr work week in France as a hindrance vs a help. That a CEO of a big company caught working more than 35 hrs gets fined and could be in big trouble for repeat violations. BUT they also trash the US for having less upward mobility than Europe and they are much happier in their lives because they have more vacation and social safety net.
    Seems to me the people at the HQ probably liked that culture except the letter writer. Lets see if things change and if people leave or stay.

  • ClayMorgan I agree with you about my shopping experience at Target in the states- yes usually very good. Unfortunately in Canada, not so much. For the large part, it feels like all they did was remove the old Zellers  sign and slapped on the Target sign.

  • Maybe I’m naive about Gawker’s standards as a journalistic enterprise, but why are they publishing emails from anonymous randos? Seems bizarre to me.

  • Where to begin? I agreed with so much of this post, and the fact that an anonymous employee “rant” became something around which a large group of people gathered to comment and created a springboard for Jeff Jones to comment is in itself an example of how our cyberconnected world has changed things. // At the organization I just left, there was an anonymous letter sent to all of our board members (around 15 people) a few years ago. It listed several grievances (people who were promoted/given raises at a time we had been told there were no raises to be given, other “injustices”). The executive director held a meeting of staff at which he attempted to address this letter (no one on the 25 person staff ever fessed up to being the author) then he proceeded to hold “one on one” meetings with us to give us the opportunity to really express our issues. The frustrating thing is that the author’s approach was unprofessional, put several other things in jeopardy, and certainly didn’t IMPROVE anything about corporate culture (not to mention the time wasted as we all tried to figure out who wrote it). While there was a grain of truth in some of the author’s comments, it seemed like the Target employee’s email in the sense that the tone was firmly in the “here’s the problem” area without offering any constructive solution. And while a 25 person org is different than a large org like Target, any time that fear leads people to shut up and take their concerns underground (or to Gawker), there’s (to me) a distinct possibility that the corporate culture has a very bad infection that needs a cure. It’ll be interesting to see how this one plays out!

  • RobBiesenbach I think they subscribe to the Arrington philosophy: Print it first and let’s not care about integrity.

  • ClayMorgan The letter from the CMO validated a lot of what the employee said. Like you, I read that letter and wrote it off as whiny. But then I read the CMO letter and thought, “Interesting.”

  • LSSocialEngage I’ve been reading about the Target debacle in Canada. It sounds like the biggest issue is people are used to shopping in Detroit and New York and then, when it finally opened near you, it was a different experience…with different prices.

  • biggreenpen From a communications and leadership perspective, I thought this CMO handled things brilliantly. But here’s the problem with this culture and with the culture you describe at your previous employer (other than the Internet Explorer issue): When you build a culture where people aren’t allowed to discuss issues and challenges – or it looks like higher ups are being treated unfairly from everyone else – this is what happens.

  • Target’s biggest fault (that led to the Canadian CEO stepping down) is the fact they treated Canadian consumers as second-class shoppers. Why should I shop at Target Canada when the stock choices aren’t as good, and the prices aren’t any better than I can get at Target’s competitors in Canada? When shoppers still prefer driving over the border to shop at your store, you know you’ve messed up.
    On the topic of empowerment, while I agree wholeheartedly in giving employees more responsibility, I do feel there still needs to be control at the top. Take the example of the employee that wrote the letter – your main takeaway was of someone that doesn’t understand business. Would you want to relinquish control to that type of employee? Yes, let’s open up the doors inside organizations – but there still needs to be some form of control or chain of command to make sure things happen when they should, by the person responsible for it.

  • makeaner RobBiesenbach Michael Arrington is famous for saying, ““Getting it right is expensive, getting it first is cheap.”

  • Danny Brown Yes… and the topic of the blog post is really about communications done well. They screwed up in Canada. Big time. They tried to take their brand and replicate it there, but at higher prices and so-so products. They have a lot of bad things going on. But the way their CMO has responded is brilliant. I don’t know if he has a PR team working with him on this, but he handled it really, really well.

  • BillSmith3

    Oh where to begin, while I sympathize with the author of the rant, I concur with others that is poorly written and rather whiny. Long before communications and marketing I used to be in retail after graduating university way back when Nirvana’s Never Mind was on the charts, first at the store level at Home Depot Canada and later at Hudson Bay Company in the Zeller’s Head Office as an assistant buyer. For those who haven’t been exposed to the operations and buying side, retail is a very hierarchical, very structured environment and process oriented both in a good way (Home Depot) and in a bad way (Zeller’s). Along with stingy vacation time which is the norm with retail back then and in some cases now judging by this rant, the employee in question, should have asked his friends pointed questions on workplace culture, benefits etc. He/she didn’t and we have now the end result on Gawker. 

    Now while I fault the writer of said letter for jumping in before looking, he/she does state some rather uncomfortable truths about Target and where it’s going. In terms of workplace culture, it doesn’t sound like much has changed when I left retail 18 years ago. 

    I agree with Gini that the chief marketing officer handled this letter well and by the book but the problems go much deeper than workplace culture. Data breaches for starters are a new reality but not being vigilant cyber security is just plain bad for business, it’s a trust issue. 

    Target Canada’s empty store shelves are due supply chain issues, in terms of their inventory control systems between Canada and the US are conflicting with the 3rd party warehouse network Target is using north of the border. While inventory is being ordered for replenishment, it’s getting caught up in the warehouse network because what’s on the bill of lading doesn’t match the purchase order. Ok a little inside baseball, the supply chain is bogged down over something as simple as case packs not matching up to what’s on the database.

  • ginidietrich biggreenpen “the internet explorer issue” – file under #ILoveHowGiniGetsIt ….. and you’re right about the CMO …. that message may have been overlooked by some of us but yes …

  • biggreenpen LOL! That always made me crazy for you.

  • ginidietrich Danny Brown is most companies CMO’s hold the least power operationally and organizationally. Not sure the situation in Target. Rarely is a CMO elevated to CEO at a big company because of the need for much broader experience in things like Finance, Supply Chain/Purchasing, Customer Service, Inventory management etc. And I wonder who made the decisions (or had a say) for what to stock and pricing in Canada (could be the CMO? not sure). When market research is done usually the CMO gives the recommendations. If he had any hand in Canada he could be heading out too.

    But as a case study in handling things he did well and showed poise under pressure. He is probably looking to ensure if let go he is hire-able by someone else.

  • ginidietrich makeaner RobBiesenbach the guy who founded gawker I forget his name but if you read about him he is all about sensationalism. As for Michael Arrington that guy was the Breitbart of tech media..a total jerk.

  • Howie Goldfarb Danny Brown I’d hire him!

  • ginidietrich makeaner RobBiesenbach Yipes!

  • “Control is out. Empower is the new black” 

    This is such an amazing quote and great reminder for so many aspects of life, whether that be communications, leadership, or any other relationship you form with a consumer, employee, or colleague.

  • ClayMorgan I’d argue that at the end of the day what matters is that the good experience  is sustainable….which it won’t be if the culture and internal communication is so poor.
    I agree that one letter doesn’t represent the whole experience, but other than Jeff Jones letter in response it’s hard to say what other culture that employee or any other should be on board with. I know a few people at Target from the floor to VP level and I’ve always heard more about efficiency, job security, playing the game, etc… than a company culture I’d ever want to work for.

  • ginidietrich LSSocialEngage I find that totally confounding. With NAFTA there shouldn’t be an excuse like different tariff levels impacting pricing or products. I would think they could even ship from the US to there if needed pretty inexpensively.

    Though to be honest in Panama McDonald’s uses real chicken in their mcnuggets and I was really upset about it when I was down there.

  • ginidietrich biggreenpen It’s easier when your culture is transparent and honest. A lot less spin and a lot more awesomeness.

  • ginidietrich biggreenpen It’s easier when your culture is transparent and honest. A lot less spin and a lot more awesomeness.

  • I am here to publicly issue a retraction from a statement I made yesterday here claiming big companies can not be nimble. I feel it is very important that as a long serving member of the Crazies Board of Trustees that a level of honesty and high ethics are upheld here at Spin Sucks.

    Today our Esteemed Leader ginidietrich and I were discussing management structures and how they are changing and when Apple was discussed Gini said that Steve Jobs could do things because he because ‘He didn’t care what people thought and didn’t let the board push him around’.
    And while new products take time at Apple because Steve Jobs had very high demanding expectations for the products he approved, it is true a business led by a ‘Dictator’ has so much less red tape. They can lead by Decree vs having to Build Consensus. This enables easier risk taking.
    When Steve Jobs decided to develop the IPhone after the IPod was such a hit, all he had to say was ‘We are developing a phone because I said we are developing a phone. Make it happen’.
    I also wish to state that in my 3 years or so here at @SpinSucks this is my first public retraction because to be fair and honest Aliens and Bunnies are almost never wrong.

  • Howie Goldfarb And Gini is never wrong.

  • Howie Goldfarb ginidietrich one day children will read about this in history books as THE retraction of 2014. Well done.

  • SusynEliseDuris

    Howie Goldfarb ginidietrich Y’all must have been talking about Apple’s “antennagate”. Ha Ha! Gini and I have had this discussion before. 

    Any crisis comms strategy needs to be about “you” the audience, not “me” the company. And the 5 tips above illustrate that perfectly.

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