With so many of us homebound, consuming news the way we used to scarf Starbucks, there might not be a worse time to do something that could harm your reputation. Yesterday, acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly fired Capt. Brett Crozier, commander of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, one of 11 US aircraft carriers.
With personnel testing positive for the virus, Crozier wrote a letter to Navy leaders March 30 urging the service to remove the majority of sailors from the carrier. “We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die,” Crozier wrote. As we write, reports said 140 personnel aboard the carrier tested positive for the virus. A carrier typically carries about 4,000 personnel. A carrier's close, dank confines might be the virus's best friend. They make distancing and quarantining impossible.
The San Francisco Chronicle published Crozier's letter March 31. The issue lingered for several days before Crozier was let go April 2.
Modly fired Crozier because the Navy no longer trusted the captain's judgment. Instead of writing the letter and CC-ing several parties, Crozier should have contacted Modly directly, the Navy said. The letter constituted a break in the chain of command. In addition, it was sent via nonsecure unclassified email
Reluctant to admit any issue with his administration's response to coronavirus, President Trump, the commander in chief, denied that Crozier was fired for attempting to protect sailors. "I don't see it that way at all," Trump said in response to a reporter's question yesterday.
[Update: Saturday, 6pm, ET, April 4, 2020: During today's press briefing, the president said: "I thought it was terrible what he did. This isn't a class on literature...the letter was all over the place. That's not appropriate."]
[Update: Sunday, 3pm ET, April 5, 2020: Captain Crozier has tested positive.]
The Navy claims it was addressing safety issues aboard the carrier prior to receiving Crozier's letter.
The question for PR pros is whether the perception that the Navy has little regard for its sailors’ safety will prove harmful. Might this incident damage the Navy's reputation? Or the reputations of Modly, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and the Trump administration?
What about recruiting? Will parents be reluctant to urge their children to consider the Navy as a career?
“As a parent, it would certainly influence what I'd suggest to my kid,” says Dr. Matthew Schmidt, who teaches national security at the Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences at the University of New Haven.
Adds Michael Cherenson, EVP, Success Communications Group and former PRSA chair, "I’m confident that the Navy’s very skilled public affairs team understands the significant reputation risk."
For Schmidt, the firing challenges the military mantra 'People First. Mission Always.' The mantra emphasizes that a commander's first responsibility is to take care of his people, though the mission is critical. It's “this bond of care from officers to enlisted personnel that creates a team willing to sacrifice for the mission,” Schmidt says.
‘People First’ is not merely a slogan, Schmidt argues. “It is the core necessity for achieving mission success.”
For Cherenson, the Crozier firing, matched with the Eddie Gallagher episode, "certainly puts the Navy’s ethos of integrity, respect for others and decisive leadership under a bright spotlight." The Navy’s reputation, he says, is based, in-part, on its ability to live up to standards it sets for itself.
He adds, though, "the important chain of command and exposure-to-the enemy issues cannot be dismissed."
What about Captain Crozier? "My hunch," Cherenson says, "is [he] understood the potential risk to his career and still spoke truth to power. He acted in support of others."
Videos show throngs of sailors ignoring distancing, chanting "Captain, Crozier, Captain Crozier, as the captain left the carrier. "If the videos are any indication, the ultimate risk to the Navy may be that sailors and marines have lost faith in their leadership," Cherenson says.
Adds Larry Parnell, associate professor and director of the strategic PR program at The George Washington University, "The reaction of the crew says it all – even the escort team waiting onshore to take him away saluted him as he approached."
The videos received wide coverage on social media and television Friday.
Both the Senate and the Navy will investigate the Crozier firing. The Navy's investigation will determine whether or not Crozier will face disciplinary action. The Navy is set to reassign Crozier.