Point One: The only thing that matters as much as a leader BEING in command of a dangerous situation is whether he or she APPEARS to others to be in command.
Point Two: The only thing that matters as much as what you MEAN to say is what other people THINK you meant when you said it.
These are tried-and-true lesson of crisis communications learned once again the hard way by the Obama Administration in the wake of the failed attempt by an alleged Nigerian terrorist to blow up an American jetliner over Detroit on Christmas Day.
Regarding Point One: The administration waited three days to have President Obama address the nation from his vacation in Hawaii. Before he spoke out on TV about his order to security agencies to re-examine the entire terror suspect watch-list process, weekend news reports had him “monitoring” the situation while he was played golf. By Sunday and into Monday morning reporters and commentators on several networks and in some major newspapers were openly questioning the president’s judgment on that score. Of course the President was on top of the situation. But sticking to your tee time for a round of golf is not the media image you want of your Communicator-In-Chief in the 24 hours following the potential loss of close to 300 lives in a domestic terror incident.
Regarding Point Two: Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano’s appearance on a Sunday TV talk show was marked by one sound bite that could come back to haunt her: “The system worked.” Huh? The alleged terrorist got on the plane despite missed warnings to American security agencies that he was considered a potential threat, including a warning phone call to US authorities several weeks ago from the young man’s father. He carried explosives and an incendiary device through security in Amsterdam. He managed to light the device, but failed to cause an explosion apparently because of a detonator malfunction. And he was taken into custody when a fellow passenger tackled him, preventing him from trying again to cause the blast. The “system” worked? Shades of Alexander Haig.
Of course what the Secretary MEANT to say was that the post-incident response worked, and the nation’s security operations remained intact and on alert. She was trying to reassure the American public. But that’s not what the sound bite conveyed. If anything, it made government leadership appear to be disconnected from the reality of a near-miss caused, in part, by the failure of security agencies to spot the threat in advance.
In times of crisis perception IS reality. At CommCore Consulting Group we counsel our clients that how leaders appear and what they say is as important as what they know and what they are doing. What do you think of the President’s and Secretary Napolitano’s handling of their responses to this crisis?