The Leader’s Voice (DHS’s Leadership Journal blog)

DHS logo Like many other government agencies, the US Department of Homeland Security maintains a blog which is called Leadership Journal. The contributors include Secretary Michael Chertoff and all of the department leaders. About the Department Journal:

This journal is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to provide a forum to talk about our work protecting the American people, building an effective emergency preparedness and response capability, enforcing immigration laws, and promoting economic prosperity.

On February 22, 2008, Michael Chertoff wrote a post entitled A Fresh Look at Port Security. Nothing really new here; but what I did find interesting was the tone set by Secretary Chertoff. He opens:

It often amazes me how certain myths about our Department’s efforts continue to endure despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Take port security, for example. I regularly see stories in the media asserting that our nation’s seaports are insecure as if we’ve done nothing since 9/11 to protect them. Just yesterday, a columnist for the New York Times casually repeated that claim.

I suspect a lot of this venting is simply intellectual laziness by those who prefer to recycle old sound bites rather than do their homework. In some cases, a deeper misunderstanding is taking place about how ports function in the real world. I’m referring to those who contend that because we don’t physically inspect every one of the 11 million shipping containers arriving at our ports each year, our entire system of security is compromised. Incidentally, those same individuals never explain that if we did open every box, there’d be a line of ships stretching across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans waiting to enter our country.

OK, Homeland Security has a very challenging mission and will always be an easy target for critics; but that’s precisely why the Leader’s Voice is so important. It presents the vision, mission and values to the world and sets the tone for the entire organization.  

Secretary Chertoff should be commended for participating in the DHS’ social media initiative. However, his post is alternatively and unnecessarily defensive and aggressive in tone. While presenting “A Fresh Look at Port Security” is valuable, framing it around “myths about our Department’s efforts” diverts and diffuses the readers attention. Using language like “as if we’ve done nothing” is defensive in nature. Read the editorial that he linked to and see if it is really worthy of this attention or again just distracts the reader. 

In the second paragraph Secretary Chertoff’s writing takes an aggressive turn. Accusing unnamed critics of “intellectual laziness by those who prefer to recycle old sound bites rather than do their homework” appears to be taking the bait of DHS critics; something that the leader of this type of organization should really avoid. The final sentence of this paragraph presents an arrogant “know it all” attitude.

In the next four paragraphs, Secretary Chertoff lays out many of the programs and initiatives undertaken by the DHS to bolster our nation’s maritime security.  While informative and full of links, the passionate voice displayed in the first two paragraphs entirely disappears in the body of the post. Granted presenting this material in an exciting way is pretty difficult and has been made even more so by how he framed the post in the preceding paragraphs.

Secretary Chertoff closes the post by writing:

Those who don’t put in the effort to get their facts straight, or who use misinformation to suggest we are ignoring our maritime sector, are not serving their readers or the American people. They also do a disservice to the men and women who stand watch over our ports and our frontlines every day.

Readers remember the last thing they read and Secretary Chertoff misses the opportunity to make a strong close. By returning attention to DHS critics the reader’s attention is diverted away from the good work done by department employees and it makes the entire post read like a defensive Quixotic argument.

Finally, social media like this blog is designed to be conversational. It is the most democratic form of engaging communication short of actually hosting a town hall meeting. In fact many would argue that this is a form of digital age town hall meeting. Unfortunately, Secretary Chertoff’s post doesn’t really engender conversation and as of this posting, no comments appear. In fact, the entire blog is remarkably void of comments considering the subject matter and authorship.

The Leader’s Voice is so important in every type organization and more so in a constantly closely scrutinized government agency like the Department of Homeland Security. Properly framing the message (vision, mission and values) is absolutely essential in order lead stakeholders and interested parties toward desired outcomes. While Homeland Security should be commended for launching a social media program, they need to find a more engaging voice if they truly want the Leadership Journal to be an authentic and effective communication medium.

Cross posted: Sea-Fever blog and Center for Leader Development

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Peter A. Mello

Husband, father, son. Lifelong mariner, student of leadership, photographer. Professional creative placemaker.

4 thoughts on “The Leader’s Voice (DHS’s Leadership Journal blog)”

  1. and another thing…

    It’s very interesting to note the difference in tone between Chertoff and CG ADM Thad Allen’s posts on the Leadership Journal. ADM Allen talks about the responsibility the Coast Guard has to the public and the pride his people take in doing that very big job. I know first hand how much ADM Allen has endeared himself to Coast Guard service members. To the readers, he comes across as sincere, responsible and giving the best of himself there is to give.

    Chertoff’s posts come off angry and defensive. He may have valid points. I don’t know, I haven’t “checked the facts.” However, I get the impression from his posts that it is the Dept of HLS against the public, at least in his eyes.

  2. I have to agree with your take on Secretary Chertoff’s tone.

    On the one hand, you have to applaud the department for reaching out and trying to communicate with modern media. On the other, Chertoff’s negative tone almost defeats the entire purpose.

    “New” media is great for building relationships with your stakeholders by demonstrating a willingness to communicate openly. However, even mild put downs like “intellectual laziness” are sure to come off as attacks…toward the very people you want to win over.

    Makes me think that the blog was a younger staffer’s idea, but the post was written by Chertoff or another old-school, “intimidation-factor” communicator.

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