Opinion | National Security

Navy Secretary Modly's aircraft carrier speech misfires badly

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In the world of PR, prepared remarks by top level executives during a crisis are typically calculated and calming, aimed at mollifying key audiences and dousing the flames of controversy. When Acting Navy Secretary Thomas B. Modly addressed the crew of the USS Theodore Roosevelt following the removal of their beloved captain, he instead threw a Molotov cocktail.

Captain Brett E. Crozier was removed from his command after an impassioned email he sent pleading for help for his COVID-19-stricken crew was leaked to the press. A national media uproar followed.

The ship's crew members gathered to cheer Crozier as he departed. Videos of servicemen shoulder to shoulder on the deck of the ship, chanting his name, illustrate both the affinity his subordinates had for him and how a highly contagious virus can run rampant in the close quarters of a ship at sea.

In an apparent effort to explain the decision - or perhaps to seize the narrative surrounding the saga on a broader stage - Secretary Modly addressed Crozier's crew over the ship's loudspeakers. Punctuated with profanity, his words provide a fascinating case study in speechmaking around sensitive topics.

On its face, the speech certainly violated some communications best practices, while echoing key messages that have been reiterated by the administration.

For starters, Modly asserts incorrectly and definitively that "no one expected this pandemic." A range of astute observers and global health professionals have been warning us about this very topic for years. Bill Gates's 2015 TEDx talk The Next Pandemic: We Are Not Ready should be required viewing for anyone who believes that America could not have seen this coming.

More recently, Dr. Luciana L. Borio, an infectious disease specialist who formerly served as the Director for Medical and Biodefense Preparedness at the National Security Council, spoke of the dangers we are seeing play out today, warning that America "cannot respond with the speed that we need to."

Modly's address also included broad, blanket statements and he spoke in absolute terms, which should be avoided in such circumstances.

"The only reason we are dealing with this right now is a big authoritative regime called China was not forthcoming about what was happening with this virus," said Modly. But we know from extensive, highly sourced reporting that the president and his administration were being briefed on the situation developing in China as early as the first days of January.

While it may be politically expedient to try to pin blame for our nation's current predicament entirely on China, this rhetoric ignores the obvious truth that a multitude of factors - over many years - have contributed to the present circumstances.

Modly's mention of the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee by name made it virtually impossible to claim the speech was not political. Refusing to mention an opponent by name is a tried-and-true tactic; what's more, mentioning Biden was wholly unnecessary, given that Biden was just one of many who have raised serious questions about Crozier's firing.

Knowing your audience and speaking to them in terms that are likely to resonate with them is something most speakers at least attempt to do. Modly didn't bother. He mocked the crew's popular leader, who has tested positive for COVID-19, by sarcastically calling him "a martyr C.O. who wasn't getting the help he needed."

"If he didn't think, in my opinion, that this information wasn't going to get out to the public, in this day and information age that we live in, then he was either A, too naïve or too stupid to be a commanding officer of a ship like this," Modly said of Crozier. "The alternative is that he did this on purpose."

It's an ironic choice of words given that Modly must have known - or certainly should have anticipated - that his own words would be recorded, leaked and splashed across the news in a similar fashion.

In the end, there are probably at least two people - one alive and one dead - who would cheer the content of the Modly speech. The first is President Trump, who could certainly find a lot to like in the address. The second is Niccolo Machiavelli, who famously posited that it was better for a leader to be feared than loved.

After all, this was a speech heavy on the rejoinder that the sailors did not need to love Modly, nor should they feel obligated to love their recently fired captain.

"You are under no obligation to love your leadership, only to respect it," said Modly.

After such a speech it is a safe bet that many of the men and women under his command will feel neither love nor respect.

Evan Nierman is Founder and CEO of Red Banyan (@redbanyan), an international public relations and crisis management firm.

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