Posted by David Oates 3 weeks, 4 days ago

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Forgive me if I boast about the US Navy Public Affairs community for a moment. I possess a bit of bias from my years in uniform. Nevertheless, the recent tragedies along the high seas show how exemplary these professionals handle the pressure of their duties.

We saw this only two well recently when two costly, seemingly well-equipped combat vessels with a full crew compliment suffered catastrophic — and deadly — events. The 17 Sailors who perished from them left behind families and friends whose painful grieving were chronicled by countless news organizations. Questions about how these completely avoidable collisions occurred received “A” Block status on national television newscasts. Rumors ran rampant with the speculation that cyber attacks on the USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain’s Aegis systems caused the ships to crash into merchant vessels. If not handled well, the whole story could cascade into an even greater, longer-lasting conundrum for the sea service. 

To be sure, heads will roll. Accidents of this magnitude and frequency don’t occur without a systematic breakdown in equipment readiness and training. It would not surprise me in the least if other U.S. Navy flag officers get relieved of their command and forced into retirement as a result of findings from the current string of investigations into the accidents.  

In response, the Navy had only one real course of action. Show a genuine and sincere concern for what happened, take care in honoring those who gave their lives in service and showcase a fierce commitment to taking corrective action to avoid further tragedies like these. Here’s where the Public Affairs team and senior leadership shined. Take a look at their responses to both the Fitzgerald and John S. McCain events, and you’ll see.

  • Quick Announcements. U.S. 7th Fleet’s initial press release launched within hours of the incident, informing the public of the who, what, where and when.
  • Regular Updates. The Navy Public Affairs team also sent announcements of updates as required, not holding back any details despite the potential in putting the sea service in an unfavorable light.
  • Respect for Privacy. None of the Sailors killed or injured were identified by name before the next of kin were notified, recognizing the fact that their family should not hear about their loved one’s involvement second hand.
  • Lack of Speculation. None of the official statements, press interviews or other materials provided information that would lead to speculation on the cause of the collisions, so as not to taint the formal investigations.

Moreover, when John S. McCain suffered its accident, the Navy and its Public Affairs team ratcheted up its efforts by announcing that it relieved the most senior, Asia-based operational commander of his duties while its top Admiral called for a fleet-wide operational pause. These communications left no doubt as to how serious the Navy was taking this matter. While the question remains beyond significant, the response by the sea service gave them the latitude to have a frank discussion about the readiness of its people and equipment. I would argue that this conversation should have started more than a decade ago. Nevertheless, the Navy’s Pubic Affairs Team did a stellar job in giving their leaders another chance at it.

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