Health Comms Awards Prmoment India 30 Under 30 PRmoment Leaders PRmoment Masterclass AI in PR

Personal branding helps secure Global Communications Jobs: Lavanya Wadgaonkar, Nissan's Global Comms VP

Lavanya Wadgaonkar, Nissan

Lavanya Wadgaonkar is the first Indian to be elevated to the role of global vice president, communications and global DEI champion at Nissan. This makes her the second in command in the global comms team at Nissan. Reporting to Nissan's CCO Sadeyuki Hamaguchi, she handles a team of over 250. 

Her remit covers 4 regions globally (across all markets), two brands and motorsports.

On the first PRmoment Leader Insight 2024 series, Paarul Chand, editor of PRmoment India speaks to  Lavanya Wadgaonkar about her journey from India to Japan, owning a brand crisis, why personal branding matters in global jobs, and handling the DEI backlash.

Learnings from a global communications role at Nissan, understanding cultural communication challenges 

PRmoment India: What are your key learnings from leading a global communications team? (second in command). You are also the first Indian to be VP, of global communications at Nissan.

Lavanya Wadgaonkar: I am the first Indian and the first Indian woman to be in this role. One of the best learnings for me is the cultural differences and how cultures are linked to the way we communicate. This is very critical as you work with multicultural, multilingual societies. You and I were born in India, we are exposed to multiple languages all the time. And we focus a lot on brushing up our English. But as we move towards the east, you feel that language should not be a barrier to communication. So that's something that I've been learning quite a bit. And I feel that I am a bit more sensitive than I was earlier:

PRmoment India: What has struck you really about how different cultures express their emotions? And how do you engage emotions in a campaign, given the differences between Japan and India, they are both Asian but express their emotions very differently.

Lavanya Wadgaonkar: That's where the customization to cultures happens. For example, this is related to something we did in Japan, with LGBTQ awards for the work that we've been doing on pride. ⁠As global communications, we communicate across the world about it, but when you communicate in markets which are predominantly Islamic, you have to be extremely sensitive, keeping in mind that their religious beliefs should not be hurt. Now having said that, it's not you shouldn't communicate because that's a key point that you want to make, but you should be very, very careful, very sensitive to it. I think the learning for me is the cultural filter, I would say, you know, when we express certain things, how is that interpreted in each market is very critical.

Now, the sensitivity towards something like diversity is different in a market like India, where we are we grew up in diversity. While says diversity in Japan could be different because there's predominantly a homogeneous culture and their their diversity could be just oriented towards gender. So they may be sympathetic, they may not be empathetic, but there could be certain markets where empathy is higher or emotions are higher when it comes to a topic like that. 

PRmoment India: Do you think corporate has a role in pushing the boundaries of diversity communications, as when it comes to certain diversities and inclusion, it's a very long game to play. We may not even see some of this happening in our lifetime. So when it comes to this kind of long game, and the increasing expectations by consumers, companies and CEOs should stand up for social issues. Is it putting too much pressure on a brand and a company to do that?

Lavanya Wadgaonkar: I don't think it's putting pressure, I think it's important for every company, because corporates, the plus point of corporates is they are organised institutions. You have your human resources. So it's easy for you to influence them, to encourage them, to motivate them. And it's easy for corporates to be able to organise a movement or a revolution. I don't think corporates take this as a pressure because we are moving towards a more conscious world as you and I know, consumers are becoming more conscious as well.

KPIs that matter in DEI, fighting DEI backlash 

PRmoment India: What DEI KPIs does Nissan, focus on globally, and in India?

Lavanya Wadgaonkar: There's got to be a balance between numbers that we pursue, which could be percentages, this could be the number of positions that you're creating for a diversified employee base.  We have also signed the UN's Women's Empowerment Principles, as it gives us a globally acknowledged framework. And we do measure actions as well. For example, we measure how many conversations are discussing issues like diversity and inclusiveness. What's the satisfaction rate of those conversations? What kind of questions are evolving from these conversations and turning into actions, one of the best tools for us to assess DEI is the global employee survey. 

My global champion role was created because we saw the topic of DEI coming up very often and Nissan CEO, Makoto Uchida, was very keen on making a change. He felt that while it's the responsibility of HR to build on DEI, there is a need for a set of people who are immediately with agility, addressing some of the issues coming together as a global team from an employee point of view.

PRmoment India: There is a backlash against DEI initiatives, especially in the US where even legislators have targeted companies for having DEI programmes. And we've seen some of that emerge from the US educational system, with as many as 9 states cancelling affirmative action programmes. Do you see this as a purely US trend? 

Lavanya Wadgaonkar: I don't think it's a trend, as you take conversations to the next level, if there's more momentum coming on every topic, there's also some issues that arise out of that communication. One is, yes, there is a there is fear of DEI washing, that's happening in the corporate sector. I think that is where the US is coming from. They feel if you are creating policies that encourage diversity, then that could be reverse discrimination happening. So it is not confined to a particular region, maybe the voices are stronger in some markets. Does that mean stop whatever you are doing, that's not the case, be conscious, avoid DEI washing, and be conscious about reverse discrimination. Now, there's a fine balance, which is always a challenge. And how can we define that this is the right balance?

Learning from Nissan's 2018 reputational crisis 

PRmoment India: Coming to the last set of questions about communication, before we go on to a bit of a personal aspect of your life. As we all know, Nissan faced a major crisis in 2018. With what happened with your CEO and chairman. What have been the learnings about crisis communication from that, from that event? And secondly, the second question is that you talk a lot about being agile in your communication. So is all communication really, crisis communication in action today?

Lavanya Wadgaonkar: All communication is not crisis communication, I can say that for sure. But crisis did become a way of life for communicators.  Yes, we, went through a major, major crisis as Nissan. And we do stand as a great case study when it comes to managing a crisis. Now, Nissan has always been pretty good at managing crises, because one, we are a Japanese company that's always prepared to tackle disasters. We face earthquakes all the time, and as an auto industry and as an automotive company, you do have a very set process for handling crises because Nissan is a major manufacturing organisation.  Manufacturing also means there are a lot of issues and crises that arise.

However, then you go through the type of crisis we went through, it was a different level altogether. It's not the same set of preparedness that we're talking about. But what we realised is it's not about whether you are prepared to handle a crisis it's about your communication, overall, building the reputation and trust that is needed for you to have a credible voice when a crisis happens. And this is why I'm saying what we went through in 2018 is a major reputational crisis. We lost trust. We lost trust among a lot of stakeholders, customers, and employees.  That also makes you realise that all the effort of 90 years of Nissan's history could be wiped out in a day because of this kind of event. 

One of the learnings for us is an, you'll need to have the right set of information flow within the organisation. This is very important. This may need a lot of training, and a lot of awareness that communication during a crisis needs a lot of partners. The business is a partner, the spokesperson is not a communications person. So, for communications people, are you accessible to your stakeholders, even if you don't have all the answers, at least you are communicating to them, reassuring them that you know and you will react this is important. 

Ensuring information flow as I said is important that means is your organisation in the background set properly there the moment something pops up is that quickly and efficiently reaching the right people to react in the right way. This is important. 

A lot of times we used to think crisis should be centralised activity should be handled at a global level. But more and more in the post-COVID era, for example, you need to understand that crisis is actually on the ground to empower people on the ground is very important. 

Indians in global communication roles 

PRmoment India: One final question, Lavanya.  It's been a very interesting journey for you from India to Japan, career-wise, and culture-wise.  And are we seeing a trend of increasingly having  Indian communicators in global roles, such as yours? 

Lavanya Wadgaonkar:  It's a lot of credit to Nissan because we don't have any glass ceilings in our company. During my journey, I've never seen any of my managers, or any of the executives ever saying, oh, we need only people from so and so country to come in these roles. 

Three things I would say. A lot of times, we forget, as communicators, we communicate about our company, but we don't communicate about ourselves. We forget that fact. Because we take it for granted. It is our manager's job to ensure that you know, whatever we are doing is cascaded in the system. That never happens. You need to build your personal brand. 

 Second, the right networking, Your own network within the organisation is also important. If you don't position yourself, you won't be seen, there are many talented people. You're not the only talented person. Additionally,  I think crisis was one of the key points for me to show, my ability and performance because even in India, I've dealt with multiple crises for Nissan, all these also give you credibility within the organisation to grow as well.

Coming back to the question about do you see Indians growing in these roles, I see Indians growing in every role. And I feel proud about it. The image of Indians has been constantly changing in the minds of the world. So we are appreciated. Definitely, for our capabilities, we are appreciated for our communication, for sure.  Indians also have this storytelling capability, which is good, because we are brought up, on stories., This works in our favour.  We are also perceived as very hardworking. And over some time, we are also seen as someone who do express ourselves, raise issues, and we dare to talk. 

If you enjoyed this article, you can subscribe for free to our weekly event and subscriber alerts.

We have four email alerts in total - covering ESG, PR news, events and awards. Enter your email address below to find out more: