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You're Doing a Heck of a Job, FEMA

Erik Deckers
Laughing Stalk Syndicate
Copyright 2007

Last week, the Federal Emergency Management Agency committed the unpardonable sin of faking a press conference about their performance at the southern California wildfires, by having their own public affairs (public relations) employees pass as reporters and lob softball questions at the FEMA Director, Vice Admiral Harvey Johnson.

Johnson replaced disgraced director Michael "You're doing a heck of a job, Brownie" Brown, the guy President Bush praised on national TV a few days before firing him for blowing the government's Hurricane Katrina response.

Believe it or not, lying is a big no-no in public relations. Unfortunately, it's something the Bush administration has gotten good at -- hiring PR professionals to create news broadcasts and pass them off as real, paying columnists to write good things about them, and now this.

The pretend journalists asked only easy questions to shine FEMA in the best possible light. But the grown-up journos could only listen in by phone, but not ask questions. That's because FEMA didn't call them until 15 minutes before the press conference began, and gave them a listen-only phone number to boot.

The one TV station that was allowed to attend and broadcast Big-Fat-Liargate was Fox News, which isn't too surprising, given their overly-biased news coverage.

You're doing a heck of a job, Foxy.

Faking public relations is known as astroturfing, unlike real grassroots PR. At least AstroTurf looks real from a distance. These guys just paved over the lawn and painted it green.

FEMA continued to FUBAR the situation a few days later, with a government-speak apology from Johnson ". . . for the inexcusable actions and remarkably bad judgment exhibited at a FEMA press conference. . . Individuals involved have been admonished and additional disciplinary actions are possible."

Not so fast, Admiral. I think a lot of the "remarkably bad judgment" happened when the guy at the front of the room starting calling on the people he worked with on a daily basis, instead of wondering where the real journalists were.

Doing the press conference under a "Mission Accomplished" banner didn't help either.

So does Johnson include himself as one of those individuals who will face additional disciplinary actions? Hopefully. After his boss, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, called this "one of the dumbest and most inappropriate things I've seen since I've been in government." I don't think the Admiral will get off with just a stern look.

You're doing a heck of a job, Harvey.

"I have made it unambiguously clear, in Anglo-Saxon prose, that it is not to ever happen again and there will be appropriate disciplinary action taken against those people who exhibited what I regard as extraordinarily poor judgment," Chertoff said in a really-and-for-true press conference a few days later.

Anglo-Saxon prose?! Wow, he must be serious. You're doing a heck of a job, Saxy.

One guy whose uppance did come is the now-former Director of External Affairs, John "Pat" Philbin. Weeks before, Philbin had announced his departure from FEMA to take a new, more prestigious position at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), effective a few days after Big-Fat-Liargate. But the ODNI realized that while they could fake prewar intelligence to the American people, they couldn't hire a guy who faked a press conference.

"We do not normally comment on personnel matters. However, we can confirm that Mr. Philbin is not, nor is he scheduled to be, the Director of Public Affairs for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence," they said in a written statement.

You're doing a heck of a job, Philby. Or not.

But Philbin isn't worried about his job possibilities. He told CBS News, "I have lots of experience, I know how the government works. I have credentials in government and academia and I am looking at my options." He'll get a new job in no time. According to his résumé, Philbin was also a fighter pilot, is the rightful King of England, and killed Voldemort in a wizard's duel.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I used to work in public affairs for the Indiana State Department of Health. I was in charge of crisis communication, or what I like to call "Oh Crap PR." That's because I would occasionally get a phone call from one of our epidemiologists about a public health emergency. The first words out of my mouth were usually "oh crap," or much worse if it were a more serious problem.

That's why I'm shocked and outraged at what FEMA did. Government communicators have a hard enough time getting their message across to the media and public. They work for an organization no one trusts, in a profession no one believes. We don't need a bunch of unethical boneheads making a difficult job even harder. They're no longer just bumbling incompetents who can't find a hurricane with a map and a barometer. Now they're a bunch of liars and propagandists.

I just hope they don't become humor columnists.


  1. Can we repeat one thing you said? Lying definitely is a big no-no in public relations, and true PR people don't do it. Idiots like these guys may call themselves public relations professionals, but no one else should refer to them that way; they don’t deserve the label. It's like calling Michael Vick a pet owner.

  2. Haven't we beat this dead horse to death yet? This an almost every other PR blog has had its say -- all approximately the same drivel. Wrong. Dumb. Stupid, etc., etc., etc.

    Yes it was wrong, dumb, stupid and all of that but there are lots of other issues out there that deserve thoughtful attention and discussion. (And no, I'm not connected with FEMA, Homeland Security or the current administration and I'm not a Republican.) Let's turn our eyes away from this trite rehash and look at some of the other perhaps less obvious but more insidious public relations manipulations that are being foisted on us today. That would be a far better use of our brainpower.

  3. Norm,

    True, other PR blogs have discussed this, but they're not funny. At least not intentionally.

    Thoughtful attention? Are you new here? ;-)



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