Anupama Sajeet
Jan 09, 2024

90% of the crises in automotive industry are predictable: Nissan’s Lavanya Wadgaonkar

The global vice president of communications at Nissan shared insights on tactfully handling PR flare-ups and communications crises in the digital era, while also championing DEI, and more during her India visit

90% of the crises in automotive industry are predictable: Nissan’s Lavanya Wadgaonkar
"As a student, I would never have imagined I would join the corporate world," said Lavanya Wadgaonkar, now global vice president, communications, Nissan Motor Corporation, based in Yokohama, Japan, in a conversation with Campaign India.
Wadgaonkar, who is currently in India, holds a PhD and MPhil, with a specific focus on the language of cinema in India, and hails from a family with a long history in the creative arts and cinema. 
She was occupied in the academic and creative fields with stints at All India Radio that won her two national awards for radio documentaries before the shift to the corporate world happened in early 2000.
And since then there’s been no looking back for the global communications veteran and DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion)  champion at Nissan whose bio on LinkedIn reads, ‘It’s not about why I am at the table but what I bring to the table’.
Having joined Nissan in 2012, Wadgaonkar has since held various leadership roles across India, Asia, Oceania and Japan.
In an in-depth conversation, Wadgaonkar talks about the significance of timely and appropriate crisis communication in the era of social media while also addressing the DEI initiatives undertaken by the global automotive organisation.
Addressing diverse markets
Elaborating on the challenges that came along with maintaining consistency in its global communication strategy while addressing diverse markets for the automaker, she said, “It’s always a challenge to maintain consistency because the word does not apply for communications. Especially in today's world, you're supposed to be more customisable for every market because the cultures are different, people are different, emotions vary, and so are the languages. Everything is different."
To handle this, Wadgaonkar stated the importance of consistency and a corporate narrative.
"Consistency only applies in the sense of an overall corporate messaging, and the corporate narrative always matches the company’s heritage and history plus the company business. That's the job of global communication - to bring in that corporate narrative. How the corporate narrative is expressed by the market-to-market is the job that one has to do at the local level. There is this fine balance and there are some things that global communication leads and the regions and markets amplify, and some others where the regions and markets lead and the global amplifies.”
Wadgaonkar emphasises that certain things are very consistent across the world, despite different cultures as human beings feel the same about certain issues. 
Citing the example of diversity and inclusiveness issues or people’s liking for cars, or companies that they trust, she said, “It's not so different when you look at it. So when we do a global strategy, that's exactly what we keep in mind in terms of what the audience is looking for. We categorise the audience into different categories and for each audience, we customise our stories. So it's how you do it- it's not about consistency, it's about collaboration.”
Elaborating on how the company tailors its communication approach to meet the cultural nuances of different regions, she stated, “Every region and market has a tailored approach because their customers and products are different. So not all products are in every market and not all products are at the same level in every market. Like for example, the Nissan Magnite is only in India. So you tailor your communication around that.”
“So if you're talking about corporate topics like financials or sustainability that's very consistent everywhere because the company is committed to it. The company's purpose guides everything. One of the critical threads that links all communications is the purpose, and that's defined at the global level, so are the company’s values,” asserted Wadgaonkar.
“Then from the corporate narrative comes the global messaging, which is then taken to the regional level and the local level, and that's how it gets customised into storytelling,” she added.
Electrification and sustainability
With the growing emphasis on sustainability and electric vehicles in the industry, Wadgaonkar discussed Nissan’s approach when it comes to adapting the communication around EVs. 
“EVs are part of the centre of our communications now because they are at the core of our business too. One of the things from an overall perspective is our commitment to electrification, which is led by our commitment we made to be carbon neutral by 2050. All our new models will be electrified by 2030. But we also gave different targets for each region. We don't split it market by market, but overall every region has an electrification target. But when it comes to market level, the story is different, because regulations and customers are different,” she shared.
Nissan has more than a decade of experience in EVs, and its first all-electric Leaf is one of the first and the biggest mass-marketed EV vehicles to be launched in the world. Despite this legacy, Nissan is yet to launch an all-electric vehicle in India.
On this, Wadgaonkar said, “There is no specific reason why that hasn’t happened yet. It's about us being ready and the market being ready while making sense to the business. So it's several factors coming together.”
When asked about Sakura - Nissan’s 'global affordable EV', and its entry into India, she said, “There is no plan on bringing it to India yet. Right now, it's being sold only in Japan,” she clarified. 
“Sakura is an A-segment entry-level EV and the Japanese audience is big into 'Kei' cars, i.e. entry-level cars. It's a big segment there, so it's customised to that audience.”
However, the automaker has plans to launch an entry-level, A-segment SUV EV in India in the coming years, along with two other products which will not be EVs by 2025-26.
Fostering inclusive workplace environment
Talking about her role as global DEI champion at Nissan, Wadgaonkar stated what the Japanese automaker expects. 
“DEI is a very important part of our culture. Nissan has always been known for its diversity, we have 66 nationalities with more than 50% of our executives being non-Japanese. I am not officially in charge of DEI as that belongs to HR (human resources). I am appointed as the DEI champion to be able to address some of the key upcoming issues that we hear from employee surveys, and we want to address them quickly, as going through a more systematic process will take time so we need a smaller group that can revert very quickly on these things.”
When there is diversity, a complexity of inclusion comes, she pointed out. “Sometimes they don't go hand in hand. The more the diversity, there's also more human complexity that comes in. And one of the top priorities that we have as the DEI champion is inclusion.”
Wadgaonkar cited the three big challenges when it comes to ‘inclusion’. 
“One is to make people aware of what inclusion is and how they play a role because, to a large extent, all employees think DEI is the job of HR or leadership - we don't look into ourselves to say how we can create an inclusive culture.”
The second aspect is a 'safe mindset'- having a safe platform where one can express one’s fears and concerns. "Especially in cultures like the Japanese, which is hierarchical in nature, it's not easy for people to speak about their managers or superiors," she revealed, adding that's something that needs to be encouraged in terms of conversations.
And the third is to bring a more systematic approach towards the subject. This is why the company has signed the ‘UN Women’s Principles’ to have a more systematic approach towards it.
“There's always 'intention'. All companies today have the intention. But intention in itself is of no use unless the intention becomes an ‘action’. And that is the focus of the DEI champion group,” she said.
DEI as a space is new to many companies, she added and emphasised the need to learn from each other and share best practices and implement them.
The global DEI Council at Nissan is chaired by the CEO and includes all the executives and chairpersons of all regions on the board. The other initiative which has worked for the company, she shares, is having employee resource groups (ERGs) to have a safe mindset and safe forums for employees to talk. “So we have ERGs across the world. The US leads in terms of having several Hispanic and Black groups, to name a few. We have initiated some new ERGs in Japan as well. So we have a culture group, an LGBTQ+ group, gender groups, femtech groups and so on," added Wadgaonkar.
Fire-fighting tactics
The communications leader shared insights on handling ‘crisis communication’ while highlighting the lessons learnt from past challenges, both in-house as well as from outside.
“A very important aspect of crisis for me is communication and preparedness. To a large extent, if you look at the automotive industry 90% of the crises are predictable,” she said.
“Especially if you're a 90-year-old company, there would be many such situations that you've already seen and gone through. It's very easy for a company with that kind of history to have a well-oiled machine working behind the scenes: How the information flows when the crisis happens, who gets the information, how the decisions are made, has the training been given to everybody who can face the media, who can face the stakeholders – on all the scenarios the information flow needs to be charted out, and defined very clearly. Because many times that's the choking factor,” Wadgaonkar elaborated.
She also stressed on the criticality of the ‘first communication’ that goes out. “When you get a question, you should be accessible and should respond. You may not have all the information or all the details yet. But it's important to let people know that the company is ‘aware and looking at it’. It's a reassuring factor."
She also stated that the auto industry has seen nearly everything happening and hence knows how to react to the standard issues that can happen, statements can be prepared well in advance.
“Yes, there are some things that happen that we have never seen before. Like, for example, when Covid happened or the supply chain management issue happened. That is evolving, so there's always a war room with consultations with the key people working on it. That’s very critical,” she said.
However, she noted, for crises what's also important is whether the company has been investing in building trust. 
“Anything can happen anytime. But if you are a company which has credibility, you will stand strong even in a crisis, because people will give you the benefit of the doubt. That is not done when the crisis happens. That's done as part of your communication strategy,” she stressed.
PR in the social media era
In the recent past several brands have had to endure public relations fallout online in the face of social media scrutiny. On how the communication team needs to adjust strategies to respond to and manage potential crises before they blow up on the internet, Wadgaonkar said, “Social media is a game with no rules. There's a lot of fake news that circles today and there's a lot of negative news. One critical factor is listening. We need to have the right social listening tools. There's no way one can compromise on that. You need constant monitoring, and when a crisis happens that goes up as well. So then we have an hourly report that comes out.”
On social media too a standard approach to acknowledging issues is important, she pointed out. 
"One also needs to be careful about trolls because sometimes a response could also trigger more issues since trollers are not known to be reasonable. When a crisis happens logic doesn't prevail too. So that sensitivity as to when to react and how to react needs a lot of training for people who handle social communications,” she said.
When asked whether the long-term sponsorship with the ICC which ended with the ICC Men's ODI World Cup in 2023, she stated that the association has not been extended as of now.
“This last World Cup was the final event that we were aligned with them on. I wouldn't be able to comment much on the extension because that doesn't come under my purview. But overall sponsorships are always helpful because they elevate the brand. The strategies can keep differing. Sometimes it may be relevant globally, and at other times it may be relevant to a particular market. That's how we need to be re-looking at it. For instance, if you sponsor cricket it may not work in the US. That process of deciding on sponsorship comes from your own marketing and overall strategy, so we can not say whether we will continue or discontinue it," she added.
While on the topic of different markets, the perception from outside the automobile industry is that Nissan hasn't performed as well as expected in India.
Responding to a query about this, Wadgaonkar surmised, “The only thing we can say is, we've learnt a lot in the last 15 years. We have announced renewed investments and new vehicles, so we will see what is going to happen. We are definitely here to stay.”
Campaign India

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