How to Communicate in a Crisis: Lessons from the Pentagon, Homeland Security, FEMA & More

It’s hard to match Brent Colburn’s experience in dealing with high-stakes communication challenges.

Brent has led communications for the U.S. Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Emergency Managment Agency, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (where he was Chief of Staff), the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (created by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, pediatrician Priscilla Chan), and currently, Princeton University, where he’s the Vice President for Communications and Public Affairs.

He worked on the presidential campaigns of Al Gore, Howard Dean, and Barack Obama, and has been a fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

In this episode, we hear Brent’s unique insights on dealing with the crisis we’re going through now, or with any situation in which getting the communication right really matters. He has valuable lessons not only for communicators, but for leaders.

Listen to the episode above — or with Apple Podcasts or any other podcast app.

Brent Colburn

(From Princeton University)

Brent Colburn, currently the Vice President for Communications and Public Affairs at Princeton University, has worked over the past two decades in a number of mission driven organizations, including stints in philanthropy, with the Obama administration, on Capitol Hill, and on numerous political campaigns.  Immediately before joining Princeton’s senior leadership team he served as Vice President of Communications at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg’s groundbreaking philanthropic effort.

Mr. Colburn served in a number of leadership roles in the Obama administration, ending his service in the executive branch as the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, the senior public affairs official for the world’s largest employer and the principal advisor to the Secretary of Defense for communication strategy, media relations, public information, and community relations.  He has also served as the Chief of Staff at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Assistant Secretary of Public Affairs at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the Director of External Affairs at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).  Between leaving the Defense Department and joining CZI, Mr. Colburn spent a semester at Harvard’s Institute of Politics as a residential fellow.

Mr. Colburn worked on every presidential election between 2000 and 2012, most recently as the National Communications Director for President Obama’s successful re-election campaign and the Communications Director for the 2013 Presidential Inaugural Committee.  In 2008 he served as Michigan Communications Director for then Senator Obama’s first presidential run, following stints in 2004 as Research Director for Howard Dean and as a member of the National Advance Staff for Gore-Lieberman 2000.

Additionally, his campaign experience includes roles at the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and as the Communications Director for Senator Debbie Stabenow’s (MI) 2006 re-election campaign.  Mr. Colburn also served as Deputy Chief of Staff in Senator Stabenow’s Senate office.

Mr. Colburn is a recipient of the Department of Defense Medal for Distinguished Public Service, as well as William & Mary’s Baxter-Ward Fellowship for Distinguished Government Department Alumni.

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