In his book Decision Points, former President George W. Bush offers a candid look at his decision-making process while in office. From the war in Iraq to his efforts to reform Social Security, the book is a rare glimpse inside the mind of one of the most controversial presidents of my lifetime. It’s a good read for anybody interested in politics and history, whether you agreed with Bush much or not.
The section in the book dedicated to Hurricane Katrina received a lot of media attention, in part because many people – even five plus years after Katrina – wondered how an administration could be so disengaged at such a critical time. As you might expect, Bush both expressed regrets – he couldn’t deny that the response by federal and state agencies was a disaster – and offered push-back against those who placed blame solely on his administration.
However, there was one explanation of the response that I found especially instructive.
Bush talked about the success he had dealing with natural disasters both as governor of Texas and president; he said he thought his administration had disaster response down. It was a blind spot for him not because he discounted the danger natural disasters posed to America’s coastal cities, but because he had grown complacent and believed past success dealing with disasters would translate into an effective response to Hurricane Katrina. We all know it didn’t.
The lessons of Bush’s failures in New Orleans can be applied to crisis communications. The old maxim “past performance is no guarantee of future success” applies here. Every new crisis/situation has to be analyzed on its own merits and not through the prism of previous events. History and context are important, but they’re no substitute for fresh, current analysis. When consulting with clients like Ready Georgia on crisis communications issues, I and colleagues at my agency always keep these principles in mind.