Acting Navy Secretary Offers a Class in How Not to Handle a Crisis

Move over, Elon Musk. You have competition for the ignominious foot-in-mouth award. Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly wants to steal your title. And he’s doing well in his quest.

From a PR viewpoint, Modly’s firing of Captain Brett Crozier last week for writing a letter urging the Navy to address coronavirus on his aircraft carrier has gone from bad to badder to baddest.

[As we write, around 1pm ET, Modly has reportedly resigned or is about to do so.]

Yesterday, days after making what sounded like a mild apology late last week—Modly admitted firing Crozier was the hardest thing he’s had to do—the Navy chief flew to Crozier’s erstwhile carrier, the USS Theodore Roosevelt, currently anchored off Guam, to defend his actions.

On the face of it, the move was good PR. Instead of remaining silent, Modly jumped into the void.  PR teaches you never to let others write your narrative. Unlike the Houston Astros, who waited for weeks before addressing their miscues, Modly was active. He attempted to offer his narrative.

In The Lion's Den

While Modly gets points for bravery, he had to know what he was facing. Presumably Navy public affairs, the service’s PR function, was monitoring the media and social media conversations. Surely someone knew Modly was heading into the lion’s den.

Or did they and Modly somehow miss videos of sailors cheering wildly as Crozier left the carrier for the last time Friday?

Another point for Modly, though, he’s dedicated. How many of us would fly around the world to board a carrier that essentially was a petri dish of coronavirus? (Hence Crozier's letter, pleading for help from Navy brass.) It is estimated that 200 crewmen on the ship have tested positive, as has Crozier.

Modly Betters Musk

But here’s where Modly might get the jump on Musk for infamy. In light of the above, knowing the removal of Crozier was wildly unpopular with those on the carrier, Modly issued one of the most tone-deaf speeches in memory.

Modly essentially blasted Crozier. He told the sailors that if their former commander didn’t think his letter would leak he was either “too stupid or too naïve to be the commanding officer of a ship like this.” He added, “The alternative is he did it on purpose.” Not the best way to speak of a beloved captain. A captain who was thinking of the health and safety of his troops above everything else. Indeed, media reports have sailors shouting objections during Modly's speech.

The Plot Thickens

After the speech, the Navy issued a statement saying Modly stood by his tone-deaf oration. (Are you cringing yet?)

The statement also included this: Modly regretted any profanity that slipped into his remarks. “Anyone who has served on a Navy ship would understand,” the statement read.

About-Face: Apologize

On top of all that, Modly abruptly reversed course a few hours later. He issued an apology. For an apology to work, the basic PR adage is it must contain the 3 Rs: regret, responsibility, and a remedy.

As Hill+Knowlton Strategies' crisis guru Kevin Elliott says, "The advice we give brands [when confronting a crisis that has bad facts] is ‘Stand up, put on your big boy pants and express empathy…and get there fast; say what you know and be transparent and accept responsibility, not necessarily liability, and be part of the fix.’"

From a PR point of view, Modly’s apology began well. He got to the point fairly quickly and was apologetic. “I want to apologize to the Navy for my recent comments to the crew of the TR. Let me be clear: I do not think Captain Brett Crozier is naïve nor stupid. I think, and always believed him to be the opposite.”

The Deluge

So far, so good. Then this: “We pick our carrier commanding officers with great care. Captain Crozier is smart and passionate. I believe, precisely because he is not naive and stupid, that he sent his alarming email with the intention of getting it into the public domain in an effort to draw public attention to the situation on his ship.”

It wasn’t so much that the apology was so bad, but that it was almost a 360 reversal from what Modly said just hours earlier. “Apologies that are an abrupt about-face from harsh comments and confirmation statements made only a short while earlier lack credibility,” says former PRSA chair Michael Cherenson, EVP at SCG.

The Truth

The full story will come out eventually. It’s possible, as media reports hint, that President Trump ordered the firing of Crozier. In addition, reports have congressional leaders demanding Modly apologize. Perhaps that's the reason behind the quick reversal in his position. Regardless, such reports, Cherenson says, “further undermine the apology.”

There’s also a report that Modly phoned Washington Post columnist David Ignatius at 1 a.m. last week to deny a column Ignatius wrote alleging Trump’s role. Of course, Modly serves a commander-in-chief who fundamentally does not believe in apologies.

“I anticipate this apology will only deepen wounds, not heal them,” Cherenson says.  “What started as a healthcare crisis and evolved into a chain-of-command conflict, is now a full-blown communication and reputation controversy.”

This article is part of PRNEWS' daily COVID-19 coverage, click here to see the latest updates.