Michael Brown Should Take Responsibility for his Hurricane Katrina Mistakes

As the country commemorated the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed lives and livelihoods across the Gulf Coast, former Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Director Michael Brown paid tribute unlike any I've ever seen.

In a 4,000+ word declaration for Politico Magazine titled -- wait for it -- "Stop Blaming Me for Hurricane Katrina," Brown goes step-by-step through everything he believes he was incorrectly blamed for.

According to Brown, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, and U.S. Senator Trent Lott were to blame for the lack of coordination and effective evacuation that left citizens in their homes, on their roofs, and in flood waters for days awaiting rescue. The media, U.S. Congress, President Bush's schedule, and the use of a nickname are to blame for the image of Brown as an incapable leader.


It's hard to imagine what communications professional could have recommended Brown take this approach. Then again, as I read his words "when I speak to various groups about crisis management..." perhaps this strategy was all his. Either way, it is one of the most incompetent attempts at reputation management I have ever seen.

People died. Homes were destroyed. Jobs were lost. Hundreds of thousands of people were forced to evacuate to cities and states with nothing but what they could carry. Many restarted their lives far from New Orleans, which has struggled to rebuild in the years to follow.

No one cares about Michael Brown's reputation. Except Michael Brown.

To be sure, anyone who has spent time in state or federal government knows that finger pointing is always just around the corner after disaster strikes. The truth is, there is rarely one individual or office with enough authority and autonomy to take full credit or blame for anything. And there's no question -- however incompetent a leader -- that many others aside from Brown will be remembered as having failed New Orleans residents.

There is much to be learned about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and people across the federal government (during both the Bush and Obama administrations) have taken significant steps to improve policies and procedures, better align emergency coordination with states and localities, and facilitate periodic safety drills. Looking back and evaluating best practices and lessons learned are among the most important tools emergency managers have to ensure that when disaster strikes, the support and resources will be there to assist.

One of the main challenges when advising on reputation management is that many individuals have a difficult time taking responsibility for what transpired -- in essence, owning what they did. Many feel that they were misunderstood, quoted out of context, judged inappropriately, or made to be the scapegoat. But until an individual can acknowledge his role, demonstrate contrition, and pledge to do things differently, their attempts at reputation management will fail. As Brown's so clearly has.

Brown didn't take responsibility for the mistakes of the past. His love letter to himself was about all of the ways he was wronged or misunderstood. His regrets seems to revolve around not more accurately predicting how the media and congressional investigators would spin his words, take what he said out of context, or lay blame at his door.

Why this failure to predict? Because: "I was too busy coordinating the response to one of the largest natural disasters in our nation's history."

Heckuva a job, Brownie.