Latin America Crisis Communication – Is the Secret Service in Turmoil?


Photo courtesy of StephanP1975 on Flickr

Did you hear the news? Last week while President Obama was busy finalizing his plans for a trip to Columbia for a summit with Latin American leaders the Secret Service agents assigned to his security detail were busy too, scouting out the area, meeting with local security officials and hiring prostitutes to entertain them back in their hotel room.

Wait, what? The Agency with the squeaky clean record (and some other military personnel outside of the Agency) have been charged with allegedly bringing as many as 21 foreign prostitutes to their Colombian hotel rooms, cavorting and hoo ha-ing until a hotel manager was called due to a prostitute claiming that she wasn’t paid and ultimately exposing the Agents and their secret trist.

(*Just a quick reminder that prostitution is legal in some parts of Columbia, this case is about code of conduct rather laws being broken).

What makes this case disturbing on so many levels is:

  • The fact that two of the Agents accused are purportedly Senior level paid at the top levels of the federal government’s pay scale.
  • The scale of people involved in the incident —  2 or 3 people engaging in this type of behavior can be easily remedied. But 11 Agents and nine members of the military? A little bigger caramel cream to chew.
  • Gross misjudgment from officials reflecting a possible larger cultural issue within the Agency than just a few bad apples.
  • As Jay Bookman of the Atlanta Journal Constitution points out, “an agency with this kind of internal culture could be easily manipulated by those with reason to do so.”
  • It indirectly damages President Obama’s trip and message by handcuffing credibility and shifting attention away from the President and towards the scandal.

PR Crisis Response

It’s important to note that this scandal dredged up more than simply another ping to the public’s collective consciousness about a governmental scandal. It also raised the specter that perhaps a larger cultural issue is at stake within the Secret Service that transcends the need to weed out a few bad apples.

How has the federal government reacted to this crisis?

  1. Have a Predefined Crisis Communitcation Plan in Place – Following the breaking news of the scandal, the federal government appeared to work fast to alleviate any concerns about a widespread issue although many feel that this incident is possibly symbolic of a more widespread cultural issue in the Secret Service. Grade: B+
  2. Acknowledgement – When the story broke on April 13th, Edwin Donovan, a secret Service agency spokesperson addressed the rumors by stating that an unspecified number of agents had been recalled and replaced by others.  Army Gen. Martin Dempsey and White House spokesman Jay Carney acknowledged the incident and have already voiced deep concern plus several members of Congress have spoken out to defend the Secret Service vowing to launch a full investigation. Grade: A
  3. Accountability – By all accounts, the military and Secret Service have appeared to take accountability for the incident. Although the story broke via a Washington Post reporter’s questioning, since then the federal government has taken full responsibility for the Agency’s actions. Grade: B+
  4. Become the News-Breaker – Following the news, the federal government steered the conversation to themselves and became the irrefutable source of timely updates to the story. Grade: A
  5. Rectification – U.S. Secret Service Mark Sullivan swiftly announced that he is leading an investigation of the incident with support from Congressman Peter King, Chairman of the Homeland Security Committee and Senator Susan Collins, the ranking Republican on the Homeland Security Committee. By all accounts, it appears that The Secret Service, military and Congress wish to assuage any concerns that this incident somehow compromised national security. Grade: A

Although this story is far from being over, what is your opinion about how the government handled this crisis thusfar? Would you give them the same grades that I did?

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