The comms breakdown at the White House over the Secretary of Defense’s health, the backlash against ESG

Plus, the boss-employee gap on work-from-home and return-to-office policies.

1 . White House explains policy procedures after Secretary of Defense kept cancer surgery secret

Talk about a breakdown in comms practices. News broke this week that Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin not only had cancer, but had complications from surgery and wound up in the ICU — and no one at the White House knew about it.

According to the Associated Press:

The lack of transparency about Austin’s hospitalization —- including the failure to tell Biden and other top officials about it or the reason for it for days — has triggered sharp criticism.

Austin spoke with Biden on Saturday, the same day he issued a public statement saying he recognized he could have done a better job insuring the public was informed about his hospitalization, and said “I commit to doing better.” He did not, however, tell the president in that phone call that he had cancer.

To put it mildly — not great! Austin gave power to his deputy in his absence, but the White House wasn’t alerted right away because a staffer who would have relayed the news was out sick with the flu. As a result, both the White House and the Pentagon are conducting reviews on how communication within the chain of authority functions.

If the most powerful military in the world can’t get the message across to the president that their boss is in the hospital, you can bet that there are plenty of other organizations that have gaps in the chain of command in the event of an emergency. Communicators should take this opportunity to reflect upon their own org charts and determine who’s in line to call the shots in case of an emergency. No one wants to find a gap in the comms chain when it’s far too late; creating a process and protocol, with scope redundancies in place, allows you to stay nimble and communicate these changes before they create additional problems.

2. Organizations move away from framing initiatives as ESG work

Environmental, social, and governance, or ESG, is something that nearly every company engages in to a certain extent. But after facing political backlash, threats of legal action, and pressure from investors, business leaders aren’t uttering those three letters nearly as much as they used to in the past.

According to The Wall Street Journal:

Many CEOs stress that they continue to follow sustainability commitments made years ago—even if they are no longer talking about them as often publicly. A December survey by the advisory firm Teneo found that about 8% of CEOs are ramping down their ESG programs; the rest are staying the course but often making changes to how they handle them.

Make no mistake, ESG is complex and can differ widely from organization to organization. But whatever companies choose to call it, companies should view their ESG comms as not just aligned with the larger stakeholder interests and tone of the business, but as an integral part of it.

At Ragan’s Internal Communications Conference in November 2023, there was a lively discussion about when or whether companies should speak up on ESG-related issues. Alignment on ESG isn’t just important from an external reputational standpoint, the panel explained, but also crucial to create a strong employee culture.

In an election year that’s sure to be contentious with social conversations in the public sphere, communicators should continue to lean on their instincts when it comes to ESG messaging — no matter what corporate leaders decide to call these efforts.

3. Survey shows that bosses want to work from home more than their employees — but are still rigid on RTO

In the return-to-office debate, most employee comms come from leadership. But what if those same bosses want to work from home as much, if not more than their reports did? According to a survey from Checkr, that’s precisely the pattern that’s forming.

In the survey of 3,000 American workers, 68% of bosses and managers reported that they wanted work-from-home to continue in 2024, while just 48% of other workers wanted to keep their work-from-home situations. So what explains the gap between what bosses want and what they tell their reports?

Managers after often under pressure from top leaders and shareholders, and sometimes need to put aside their personal feelings to toe that line. But this survey shows cracks in the foundation in the push against work-from-home arrangements. While many shareholders and head honchos don’t want to lose the money they’ve sunk into offices, pulling back work-from-home arrangements will cause many employees to seek opportunities elsewhere in which their preferred work style is acceptable.

Working with managers to help them keep clear, honest and open lines of communication with their reports will help ease this disconnect. Going forward, you’re in a position to ensure more managers are empowered to share their true feelings on work-from-home arrangements, rather than feeling pressured to say otherwise.

  1. How about some good news?

Have a great weekend comms all-stars!

Sean Devlin is an editor at Ragan Communications. In his spare time he enjoys Philly sports, a good pint and ’90s trivia night.


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