Great Moments in Corporate Spin

Everyone knows about the political world’s celebrated spinmeisters. But what about the corporate spinmeisters? What about their amazing feats of disingenuous communication? Who pauses to stand in awe of the private sector’s vacuous answers and non-denial denials?

I’d like to single out a particularly fine example of corporate spinmeistering. The occasion is today’s front-page New York Times story  by Floyd Norris, detailing some questionable episodes from the professional past of Al Dunlap that the notorious executive managed to bury on the road to becoming the celebrated chief of Scott Paper and Sunbeam. These include two firings, one of which was complicated by accusations of accounting fraud eerily similar to those that have further blackened the reputation of his time at Sunbeam, where he was ousted a few a years ago.

Norris writes that Scott, Sunbeam, and the Securities and Exchange Commission (which has accused Dunlap of fraudulent acts while running Sunbeam) were previously unaware of the past chapters of Dunlap’s career that Norris details. Both Scott and Sunbeam of course used executive recruiting firms to find and vet candidates for the CEO jobs that Dunlap won. Scott relied on Spencer Stuart, which responded to the Times’ questions with a run-of-the-mill statement: Dunlap concealed some of his past from us, but we’re confident the portrait we assembled included all the necessary facts, etc., etc.

Korn/Ferry, the executive recruiter hired by Sunbeam, has the more remarkable answer. A spokesman says the firm did an “exhaustive search,” which of course led to the question of how that exhaustive search happened to miss huge swaths of the searchee’s past. The answer: “It is our policy not to comment on our clients’ business issues.”

This is priceless. Like all great spin answers, it’s no answer at all. The apparent shortcomings of Korn/Ferry’s investigation do not fall under the “business issues” of its client. (Unless it’s Korn/Ferry’s intention to imply that where Sunbeam blew it was in hiring Korn/Ferry—you could say that’s a Sunbeam business issue, I suppose.) I can’t imagine that anyone intending to hire Korn/Ferry and wanting reassurance that the firm would do a careful job vetting executive candidates would be satisfied with such a response.

Another possibility, perhaps, is that Korn/Ferry means to imply that it did give Sunbeam’s board the full scoop, and Sunbeam went with Dunlap anyway. I wonder what the board’s spin on that might be.