I was a panelist at a crisis communications forum this week with Michael Brown, the former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency who was forced out after the government’s disastrously dysfunctional response to Hurricane Katrina.
I won’t comment on Brown’s performance as FEMA director or his new gig as a consultant and public speaker, except to note how Maine Republican Senator Susan Collin described him as being among “an odd culture of people who trade on their notoriety rather than their accomplishments.”
Whatever your opinion of him, Brown still managed to underscore one of the first rules in big-time crisis communications when he acknowledged his biggest mistake in the hours after the hurricane flooded a shattered New Orleans.
The rule is this: Get the boss out front immediately. Yesterday, if possible.
That didn’t happen in New Orleans. Two full days after the hurricane hit -- with water rising and relief efforts in complete turmoil -- President Bush cut short his vacation and flew over the city in Air Force One on his way back to Washington D.C. He didn’t get to the front lines until two days later, when during a staged photo-op in Mobile, Alabama, he made the situation worse by saying, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.”
Today, the guy who says nobody called him “Brownie” before that moment admits that he should have tried a whole lot harder to convince the president to get to New Orleans right away.
“I should have told him to get his butt over here,” Brown said, extending his arms toward the audience. “Can you imagine if I could have had him standing next to me in New Orleans? I should have said I need your bully pulpit to kick everybody in gear, to get the bureaucracy to move.”
Whether or not Brown could have persuaded the president and his handlers of anything is a big question, of course.
But in theory at least, the battered FEMA director is as right about what should have happened as he is wrong for not trying.
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