The Coast Guard Ethos – a Bias to Communicate

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The Coast Guard Ethos – a Bias to Communicate

Happy Birthday US Coast Guard!

By Firestorm Expert Council member John Pat Philbin, Commander, USCG (Ret.)

As the Coast Guard approaches 222 years of loyal service to America, I’d like to share a personal observation that I believe illustrates what makes the organization such a terrific return on investment.  In the interest of full disclosure, I retired as Chief of Public Affairs in 2004, having served for more than 21 years, so I bring a certain bias to my comments.

Rather than chronicle its founding as the U.S. Revenue Service on August 4, 1790, when the United States commissioned ten sea-going vessels to maintain our sovereignty, deter smuggling and ensure maritime economic benefits were protected, I’d like to focus on why the agency has been so resilient, agile and responsive to America’s challenges through the years. 

Over the years, the maritime, military, multi-mission organization has acquired an extraordinary number of new missions, absorbed and integrated agencies, and (arguably) provided the “mass” for establishing the Departments of Transportation and Homeland Security.  These two cabinet-level departments initially drew heavily on the competence and core values of Coast Guard men and women to help them establish their initial operating procedures, policies and leadership—and this is where I believe the true value of the Coast Guard lies.

At home and abroad—and with little fanfare, Coast Guard personnel stand watch to safeguard America’s national interests—whether in its role as a military service, regulator or law enforcement agency.  The unique combination of capabilities associated with these roles has resulted in an organization that – in the observation of former Commandant Admiral Thad Allen – is “inter-agency multilingual.”    

The organization’s ability to

(1) understand and execute military rules of engagement in armed conflict;

(2) comply with legal regimes that are based on use of force for law enforcement operations to assert minimum force necessary to compel compliance with a lawful order; and

(3) impose regulations that protect people from the sea—and the sea from people while facilitating maritime commerce is unique across the U.S. Government. 

Why has the Coast Guard been able to accomplish so much with so little for so long? 

Certainly, its core values of Honor, Respect and Devotion to Duty, which are ingrained in all who serve in the ranks, is a large part of the reason.  This explanation is necessary but insufficient in my view. 

President Harry S. Truman said, “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”  This quality is endemic throughout nearly every “Coastie” with whom I had the honor to serve.  Let me provide a personal example of what I mean. 

Many years ago as I was serving at Coast Guard Headquarters, there was a tanker truck that was involved in an accident on the 295 Bridge just south of Washington, DC.  Local media were broadcasting from the incident and a journalist remarked that a motorist had stopped, assisted in pulling the driver from the burning vehicle, and then went on his way when first responders arrived—and no one knew the motorist’s identify.  

Incidentally, one of my staff arrived late to work on the same morning.  When questioned, he simply indicated that he had helped a motorist on the way to work.  It wasn’t until a couple of hours later in the day that I went back to ask the employee for additional details regarding who he had assisted that morning—only to learn (after much cross-examination) that he was the motorist who had provided the assistance to the distressed trucker.

He sought no recognition and indicated that he was merely doing his job.  His humility, commitment to serve the public interest, and willingness to put others before self is part of the Coast Guard ethos and this is why this organization is so special in my view. 

From a crisis management and crisis communication perspective, though, the other reason why the Coast Guard is special is that it has created a “bias to communicate” throughout its entire organization.  In fact, this critical responsibility is viewed as duty for all who serve.  In short, if you own it or have responsibility for it—you have an obligation to communicate when the circumstances warrant.  Although there is much behind this simple edict to ensure it is carried out with minimal risk to the agency and personnel, it serves as a terrific example of how organizations can be effective in today’s complex information environment. 

My sincerest appreciation and best wishes go out to all who serve and who have served in—or in support of—the United States Coast Guard. 

Happy Birthday! 

John P. Philbin, Ph.D., PMP, APR

President & CEO, Crisis1, LLC

Commander, USCG (Ret.)

Firestorm Expert Council member John Pat Philbin is President & CEO of Crisis1, LLC, a Center for Veterans Enterprise (CVE) verified Service Disabled Veteran Owned Small Business (SDVOSB) founded in 2007 to deliver executive-level expertise and solutions to federal and private sector clients. 

Pat served as Director, Office of External Affairs for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) following Hurricane Katrina where he directed the Offices of Congressional Affairs, Intergovernmental Affairs, International Affairs and Public Affairs.

Pat served for more than 21 years in the Coast Guard, retiring as Chief of Public Affairs in 2004.  Other notable staff assignments include serving as the Deputy Chief of the Coast Guard’s Strategic Analysis Staff, Press Assistant to the Commandant and Chief of Coast Guard Media Relations.  Operational assignments include more than seven years of shipboard experience, including command of two Coast Guard cutters.

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