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Open Cabinet: What Lloyd Austin Did Right in His Apology

Published on February 21, 2024, 12:29 p.m.
by Jackson Olmstead

Usually when you are sick and cannot work, you have to tell your boss you won’t be there. Is it any different if your boss happens to be the president of the United States?

Photo via Flickr by @secdef

Lloyd Austin, the first Black defense secretary and member of President Biden’s Cabinet, was hospitalized in late December last year for a procedure to remove prostate cancer and subsequently released. He returned to the hospital and was placed in intensive care on New Year’s Day at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. During his two weeks in intensive care, media outlets frenzied when they learned the secretary never notified the White House and key staffers at the Pentagon of his situation. Three days after Austin was placed in intensive care, the White House was notified of his hospital stay, and he transferred his powers to Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks. Austin was eventually released from Walter Reed on Jan. 15.

Between the White House and a hard place

So, why should we care? After all, we wouldn’t normally expect to have a news release distributed about any medical issues we experience. Austin himself made light of this issue in a Feb. 1 press conference, stating that “taking this kind of job means losing some of the privacy that most of us expect.” Perhaps we expect too much transparency from our public officials, but medical ethics experts are unclear where that line should be drawn.

As a private citizen, it is expected that we can keep information private unless someone else releases it without our permission. We even have laws and regulations in place to protect patients in medical settings (think HIPAA). Previously, there have been cases where public officials or celebrities have been treated differently in the media when it comes to their medical issues. Two notable cases are former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and Apple CEO Steve Jobs; one had almost too much information released, while the other had almost none. Should every public official expect the former?

Secretary Austin is notoriously quiet about his personal life and said that his first instinct upon learning his prostate cancer diagnosis was to keep it private. However, he acknowledged that his wider circle including the president should have been notified he was in the hospital. At the press conference, he also answered when asked if he told his staff to keep the situation secret that “the answer is no.” However, this lack of judgment is now requiring him to testify before the House Armed Services Committee.

The secretary’s defense

Photo via Flickr by @secdef

With great power comes great responsibility, and with responsibility comes the inevitable public relations crisis. While there are plenty of ways this crisis went wrong, it is important to note how well Austin and his team handled the aftermath. Making note of proper crisis communication strategies, Austin faired better than expected because of one main aspect of his reaction: his use of empathy.

Taking an issue like his diagnosis of prostate cancer and using his platform as a high profile official to educate the public about the condition while also apologizing for his mishandling of the situation is clever. He also highlighted the increased prevalence of the condition in African American men and advised them to get screened to prevent cases like his. Because of his in-depth explanation of his thoughts and feelings as he experienced a somber diagnosis, he humanized himself and related to the American public.

Austin also owned up to the mistake and ensured Americans everywhere that proper procedures were in place to ensure a situation like this did not occur again. It was put to the test just days later on Feb. 11, when Austin was admitted to the critical care unit at Walter Reed once more for ongoing issues. This time, the American public was notified within the hour from a Pentagon statement, and power was transferred to the deputy secretary.

A crisis earned is a lesson learned, but has Austin’s team learned this valuable lesson based off their most recent response? And should we expect total transparency from our public officials when it comes to their health?

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