Last week while President Obama was busy finalizing his plans for a trip to Colombia for a summit with Latin American leaders, the Secret Service was busy scouting out the area, meeting with local security officials and hiring prostitutes to entertain them 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, until a hotel manager was called after a prostitute claimed she wasn’t paid and ultimately exposed the agents.
(A reminder that prostitution is legal in some parts of Colombia; this case is about code of conduct rather laws being broken).
What makes this case disturbing on so many levels is:
- Two of the agents accused are purported to be paid at the top levels of the federal government.
- The scale of people involved in the incident—two or three people engaging in this type of behavior can be easily remedied. But 11 agents and nine members of the military? A 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 him and toward the scandal.
Grading the 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. Communication. Following the breaking news of the scandal, the federal government appeared to work fast to alleviate concerns about a widespread issue. Many, however, feel this incident is possibly symbolic of a bigger cultural issue in the Secret Service. Grade: B+
2. Acknowledgement. When the story broke on April 13, Edwin Donovan, a Secret Service agency spokesman 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
4. Accountability. By all accounts, the military and Secret Service have appeared to take accountability. Although the story broke via a Washington Post reporter, the federal government has taken full responsibility for the agency’s actions. Grade: B+
5. Timely updates. Following the news, the federal government steered the conversation to itself and became the irrefutable source of timely updates. Grade: A
6. Rectification. U.S. Secret Service agent 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
Overall grade: A-
Although this story is far from being over, what is your opinion about how the government handled this crisis thus far? Would you give them the same grades I did?
John Trader works for M2SYS Technology. A version of this post first appeared on PRBreakfastClub.com.