Select the right words. Say them well.

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Congress wants answers, or at least something close.

When it came time to ask questions about Hurricane Katrina, former FEMA Director Mike Brown was front and center this week. The point for all of us to understand is this: Whenever you are asked to explain your actions during a controversy, in the glare of media scrutiny, there are many agendas at play.

Not only did the already damaged Brown not understand this important rule, but he chose a finger-pointing strategy that was a disaster of phenomenal proportions.

Lesson Number One: If you are already a sinking ship, especially in politics, ain’t nobody coming to your rescue! The very best Mike Brown could have done was admit major mistakes have been made and, (have you heard this before?) TAKE RESPONSIBILITY! The fact is Mike Brown is not responsible for every Katrina-related mistake, but he first needed to clear his personal slate before he could even have a chance to move on. Instead, he headed in the opposite direction and every newscast, newspaper and radio report talked about how Brown was blaming everyone else for the catastrophe. By taking the finger-pointing route, he guaranteed he will be vilified even more. It also means some of the others, who probably made major mistakes themselves, have a ready scapegoat.

Lesson Number Two: In this kind of public hearing, no one is REALLY looking for answers. This is, in many ways, a show, and your part has already been cast. If you go into this kind of forum (City Council meeting, Zoning Board, U.S. Congress, etc.) in this kind of atmosphere, understand what’s happening. Sometimes your only goal is to live long enough to fight another day. If you try to win the entire war in the first battle, someone will be carried out on a stretcher; namely you!

Lesson Number Three: Say the right things and say them well. Besides taking responsibility and saying how sorry you are, you focus your comments on the victims in this case. You tell the personal stories that show evidence of hands-on experience. In his case, Brown could have emphasized some of the unique aspects of the Katrina tragedy, and the important lessons that have already been learned. Contrition, understanding and responsibility … it’s the only way to get anyone to listen to you in the future.

Bottom Line: I don’t know how much of the responsibility really rests on Mike Brown’s shoulders for the heartbreaking events of the last 30 days, but I can tell you this. When he has a hard time reviving his reputation and credibility, he’ll have one person to blame. This time, the finger will be pointed right back at him.