Thursday, December 31, 2009

"The System Worked" Wasn't What She Meant

This week's verbal blunder by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is a valuable lesson to anyone and everyone that may end up in front of a reporter or a camera and mic following a crisis or near crisis.

Following the unsuccessful attempt by a 23-year-old Nigerian to blow up a Detroit bound jetliner, Secretary Napolitano told a CNN audience "The system worked" when, in fact, it did NOT. Pundits and critics alike have compared her seeming Pollyanna statement to the former President Bush's declaration on live TV to then-FEMA Director Michael Brown, "Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job" while the networks were showing live video of people going hungry and virtually trapped in the New Orleans' Superdome and bloated bodies were still floating in the flood waters left behind by Hurricane Katrina.

When you represent any organization in a crisis -- government, business, non-profit, school, hospital, etc. -- your every word and phrase will be dissected for its meaning, accuracy and even tone.

I don't believe Secretary Napolitano was even trying to imply the security system had worked when it failed to stop a young man from carrying explosives onto a U.S. bound passenger jet. She later tried to explain that she meant the follow-up "system" was working.

No matter, her statement was ambiguous at best or down right inappropriate. And she not only opened her self to criticism and attack by political opponents, she opened the whole Administration and President Obama to criticism.

Anyone who thinks he/she is good enough with the media/public to just "wing it" or just "speak honestly" and "from the heart" is naive and bound for additional disaster.

Even if you are not the CEO, or the designated spokesperson, or especially if you are NOT one of those, you must be careful what you say and how you say it. Anyone who hears or reads something you say, will assume you are speaking for the organization and if you misspeak, it may or may not be fixable.

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