Modly broke all the rules of executive communications, providing a teachable moment for all business executives

By Andrew Bowen, APR

Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly violated almost all of the rules of executive communications when he used the PA system on the ship to harshly criticize Navy Capt. Brett Cozier, captain of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, for Cozier’s dissemination of a letter critical of the navy’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak on the ship.

And it has cost Modly his job.

What happened last week in Guam and Washington, D.C. is a lesson for all key executives in any business or industry who are tasked with critical internal and external communications, not only during this pandemic, but in any future routine or crisis situations. The Modly debacle should be analyzed as a teachable moment for all of us involved in executive communications initiatives and training.

The rules Modly not only broke and ignored, but bombed and strafed?

  1. Develop a clear objective for your communication; how do you want your audience or listeners to think, feel or act?
  2. Analyze your audience to understand how to effectively frame your message to achieve your communications objectives.
  3. Develop appropriate persuasive or motivational messages, repeat them often, and stay on message.
  4. Frame your messaging in the positive and avoid going negative.
  5. The mic is always live and the camera is always on. (Some 5,000 men and women on an aircraft carrier, in this world of social media? Please).
  6. Practice, rehearse and role-play; never wing it.

Rather than Cozier, it is Modly who was naïve and stupid. Here’s an analogy in the form of a question: How productive is it when the owner of a company castigates an ousted CEO in an address to some 5,000 employees? How can a well-educated senior executive in a major managerial and leadership role commit such grievous communications errors?

Easy. I’ve seen this before. There are at least three likely scenarios.

  • Modly’s arrogance blinded him to the potential results of his rant.
  • His subordinates failed him miserably in not preparing him for this very critical presentation, which had the potential to, and in fact has, ruined morale on the Roosevelt and has eroded morale throughout the ranks of the navy and potentially all of the armed services.
  • He told his subordinates he could handle it, needed no preparation, and rejected their advice.

And of course the day after the shipboard outburst, we have the routine round of expected apologies, the walk-back, the change of heart, the “I never intended to” mia culpa, along with a healthy dose of well-deserved embarrassment, wide ranging criticism, personal brand damage and maybe even shame. Well, maybe not that.

The fact is that no senior business executive in any business in the world can commit such communications mistakes as Modly did without being immediately sacked by the board. The damage to employee morale, operations, stakeholder and shareholder respect, vendor trust and even potentially to company revenues would be grounds for immediate termination and possible punitive action. In the business world, we always remind executives of this sobering reality: “What you say can make you millions of dollars – or cost you millions.” We simply cannot get away with what Modly did.

Yes, you are right, this is government. Modly will survive and go on to have a wonderful career somewhere else. My question is: Has Modly learned even a small lesson from this egregious display of irresponsibility? Probably not. But I suggest that wherever he goes, this will follow him. If I was his superior in his next position, I would be watching and wondering if he has the arrogance to pull a stunt like this again, and for me, his potential for advancement would be lessened.

(Bowen is founder and senior public relations/media relations counsel for Clearview Communications & Public Relations Inc./The Message Masters, a global public relations firm that also specializes in crisis planning, management and crisis communications, in addition to executive media interview skills and presentation skills workshops. He can be reached at ).