October 11, 2011

Oops! How Should HR Handle This Surprise?


WOULDN'T BE PLEASED?/Image: Michael Moffa

On September 29, 2011, China successfully launched its first space lab module—the “Tiangong (“Heavenly Palace”)-1”, an unmanned mini-space station, into orbit, a feat coinciding with the Chinese October 1st national celebrations and in anticipation of docking attempts later. To further instill and swell national pride, China Central Television (CCTV) broadcast footage of the launch, followed by an animation of the Tiangong-1 module in space. A flawless technological performance both on the ground and in space—except for one small detail that has become some HR manager’s nightmare.

The music embedded in the broadcast of this epochal moment of Chinese patriotic pride was “America the Beautiful”. That’s right—“O beautiful for spacious skies. For amber waves of grain….”.  Lovely song, stirring patriotic anthem; but, wrong country, time and place—or should I say “space”? Imagine the shock waves after the launch of Apollo 11, if the broadcast of that “one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind” had been celebrated with the Soviet national anthem.

A Hearty HR, HR?

Because that CCTV gaffe—if that’s what it was—didn’t happen on your watch, you’ll probably chuckle and get a transient patriotic jolt and boost of your own from America’s having been honored so. But what if you were the CCTV HR manager who hired the staff member responsible for selecting a soundtrack that could only have been more mismatched if it were, say, the theme song from “Titanic” ? How would you deal with the fallout and the employee? (My own experience with a CCTV hiring manager was very limited and consisted of spending about six months trying to get him to reply to my emails, despite a personal introduction and recommendation by a star editor there at the time, a close friend of mine. Talk about gaffes…)

That friend who is also a former CNN reporter and former ABC and CTV foreign editor, commenting in a private correspondence to me about the likely fate of the errant CCTV staff member, compared the under-fire employee’s probable fate at CNN, ABC and CCTV:

“Broadcast is called an ‘unforgiving medium’.  Once a mistake goes out over the air, there’s no second chance.  Trust is the common currency between executives and staff member. It doesn’t matter if it’s the newsroom, standards and practices, the advertising department, the production department—it goes all the way down the line.

Mistakes that can be traced to a failure of due diligence, lack of research or carelessness can be deadly. CCTV is China’s public broadcaster. A gaffe like this is a huge embarrassment to an organization that’s supposed to promote China’s national institutions.  But the results are not likely to be very much different at CCTV, CNN or ABC—a  mistake like that means the glass ceiling at best. If somebody high up the ladder is personally embarrassed, there’s not much left but for the guilty party to update his resume.”

Fortunately—if there’s anything fortunate in that employee’s situation—the lyrics were not included in the broadcast of “America the Beautiful”, which somewhat mitigates whatever damage, if any, caused by the questionable choice of musical theme.

Dragon of Opportunity Hidden behind Crouching Tiger of Crisis?

No explanation of why the American song was chosen has been offered by CCTV; despite pestering from international media, the most candid official CCTV response so far from a spokesperson reportedly having been “I don’t know how to answer your question…I cannot help you.”

Well, perhaps we can help them: Why not get the HR and PR (Public or Propaganda Relations) departments together to package the incident this way, in a press release: “The music was chosen as a symbol of international cooperation in the exploration of a frontier that beckons all nations to unite in harmony as one world, with one dream of the peaceful exploration of space. In selecting the music, we hoped to acknowledge America’s role as a pioneer and partner as we take our own first small step for mankind.”

Problem solved.

Who knows? It may even be the truth.

Supposing It Was an Employee Gaffe

But suppose it isn’t the truth. What to do about the staff member who made the allegedly awkward choice? And how can the HR manager who hired or appointed him cover for himself as well? Here are some possibilities:

  • Fire the employee, but at the risk of the HR managers self-incrimination by association and imputations of bad professional judgment. That’s something to think about when draining bad employee bathwater: If you are the HR manager responsible for the hiring as well as they firing, you may be the baby that gets tossed or at least spanked along with the employee, since the hiring decision was your baby.
  • Get the employee to resign. This is better, but not as good as successfully spinning the incident as a success, e.g., as above, through the theme of international cooperation. The problem with the employee’s resignation is that, as the Japanese so commonly demonstrate, resignations tend to percolate upward, again to you and at your cost, if you are that HR manager.
  • Make the employee redeem him/herself. Nice, but when there is an unbelievable gaffe on a global scale, as this CCTV music choice allegedly is, redemption may require an even more dramatic project and performance, with no guarantee that it can be achieved in the same lifetime in which the blunder occurred and at a correspondingly momentous scale.

Given that none of these three options is as good as the international cooperation gambit, I recommend that the HR and PR managers at CCTV take my advice and opt for the very positive interpretation of the juxtaposition of a Chinese rocket launch and an iconic American patriotic song. (This way, everybody at CCTV gets to save face and their hides.)

It could also be perceived as reciprocity. After all, “the rocket’s red glare” of Francis Scott Key’s “The Star-Spangled Banner” may have been a farsighted tribute and precedent, to the extent that it could also be construed as “the rocket’s Red glare”.

Perhaps it is a bit of a stretch; but that’s the whole point of mankind’s collective mission: to try to make our reach exceed our grasp…

…at least in space exploration.

Michael Moffa, writer for Recruiter.com, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).