crisis communication, leadership, speaker series

By Brandon Keller

Desirée Rogers, the former CEO of Johnson Publishing Company, producer of Ebony and Jet magazines, stopped by the Master of Arts in Professional Communication at the University of San Francisco as part of the program’s fall speaker series. Her background offers a goldmine of leadership expertise in the communication field.

She will be the first to tell you that climbing the corporate ladder takes more than hard work and long hours; it requires a proactive approach to new challenges. Her success came from a sincere desire to support organizations’ business objectives with clear and timely communication with the public. Working her way up from various communications roles to Senior Vice President of Chicago-based Peoples Energy and its utility subsidiaries, she became President of both Peoples Gas and North Shore Gas in 2004.

In November 2008, she joined the Obama Administration as the White House’s Social Secretary, the first African-American to hold that position. Along with serving as central social advisor to President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, she began work to modernize the White House’s art collection by bringing in artwork that reflected the country’s ethnic diversity. A year into her appointment, she was caught in the middle of a security scandal during President Obama’s first State Dinner.

The White House was hosting the Prime Minister of India, Dr. Manmohan Singh, and his wife, Mrs. Gursharan Kaur to celebrate peaceful relations between the United States and India, when it was discovered that two uninvited people had crashed the party. A media frenzy to find the cause of this security breach ensued, and the responsibility ultimately fell on the White House Social Secretary’s office.

For Desirée, a self-described “dissector” who analyzes every part of an organization’s vision in order to drive their goals, the breach was a catastrophe. Despite her vigilance in creating what seemed like an air-tight plan for the dinner, she hadn’t anticipated the Secret Service allowing unauthorized people into the White House. Then, when a reporter asked if she had personally checked names outside to ensure that guests were properly filtered, she made the further mistake of answering no.

In hindsight, Desirée says that if she had directed the reporter’s question to her press manager, the media might not have created a huge national news story blaming her for not checking off every person’s name, even though that responsibility was someone else’s; her job was to shadow the Obamas and orchestrate the dinner itself.

Her lesson to other professionals dealing with communication crises is: don’t be afraid to say “let me get back to you.” According to Desirée, we should never answer questions when we aren’t prepared to provide the most accurate and relevant information. We should have patience, get back to people when we say we will, and, of course, never lie.

Practicing these communication virtues will allow us to develop positive relationships and rapport with journalists and the public. In times of crisis we need to display calmness and ask ourselves, “What can I do about this problem?” It’s part of the media’s job to seek and assign blame, and as we see time and again, the media is often wrong. But to be an effective communicator, it’s our job to follow the example of leaders like Desirée Rogers, a model of poise, thoughtfulness and accountability.

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