Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was hospitalized first for surgery to treat prostate cancer, then later for a serious urinary tract infection. These both left him unable to perform his duties, and responsibilities were passed to Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks.
This all sounds like prosaic, run-of-the-mill stuff. Vice President Kamala Harris took over the presidential powers while Joe Biden underwent a root canal last year, for instance.
The difference is that Austin and the Department of Defense did not inform the White House, Hicks or the American people about this change. For days.
The AP reported that the Pentagon blamed this massive communications failure on a single key staffer who was out with the flu while all this was going on.
Now, the president is requiring that cabinet departments inform the White House if a secretary is unable to perform his or her duties – a rule that probably never existed because it seems like such incredible common sense.
Why it matters: We’re talking about the Department of Defense here, the entity that controls the most powerful military in the world. There are valid reasons that they may not always be able to be perfectly transparent with the public. But the president – a.k.a., the secretary of defense’s boss – should always know if he’s in intensive care.
If it is indeed true that one employee’s sickness led to a failure to inform anyone of Austin’s illness, it points out a systematic failure in their communications plan. There should always be redundancies and someone doublechecking reporting protocol to ensure everything is being executed according to plan – something one would hope the Department of Defense would understand.
Whatever the true cause of this massive communications failure, it’s a good time to ensure that you’ve got backup plans in place for your own crisis communications efforts. To draw a more relatable parallel, if you have one person in charge of reporting to the CEO, ensure you have a designated No. 2 in case the first person is unable to discharge their duties. And if it’s really important, maybe tell the CEO again, just to make sure.
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