Fake press conference reflects FEMA’s culture

FEMA logoOh FEMA, not again!  After reading the news of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s faux press conference held Oct. 23, I couldn’t believe that this organization still doesn’t have its priorities in place!  The saddest part about it all, at least for us communicators, is that we’re the ones receiving the bad reputation.  Let me make it clear to you skeptics out there — this does not happen in every organization, nor is every PR professional out to deceive the public.

In truth, there’s not much FEMA or any one else could do about the fires in California.  Just like Hurricane Katrina, it was a natural disaster.  If you choose to live in a region prone to that type of calamity, you should take responsibility for having done so.  We can’t blame the atrocious events on the agency that’s been established to clean up those messes. 

Blame the culture

However, it’s necessary for the organization to take the blame for the deceitful acts orchestrated by its professionals.  Despite John “Pat” Philbin’s claims that he didn’t have a “good situational awareness of what was happening,” the staff must have had some understanding.  If you’re telling me that absolutely no one thought, even for a second, “hey, something about his doesn’t seem quite right.”  I don’t buy it.

I don’t know any communicators that haven’t been schooled in ethics.  (It’s been ingrained into our brains at Kent State’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication.)  Plus, according to interview excerpts from Democracy Now featured on the Principled Profit blog, the FEMA officials involved were quite media-savvy.  So what does this incident say about the culture of the organization?

Align actions with objectives 

Clearly, the agency has lost sight of its purpose — that is to provide emergency relief and keep the affected publics informed about the necessary cautions that should be taken per FEMA’s emergency response strategy.  The diminished culture of this organization was evident during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  However, it baffles me that FEMA hasn’t done anything to improve its internal strategies. 

One would think that the agency would be prepared to respond to all aspects of an emergency in the appropriate manner, especially public communications.  This organization is used to bearing bad news, so instead of trying to avoid the public FEMA’s professionals should train to answer the tough questions that they know the media and the victims will ask.  Not to mention FEMA officials should be asking themselves, “what’s best for the people effected by this?” not “what’s best for us?”

The leaders in the agency need to set the example by being honest, straightforward and demand nothing less from their associates.  They also need to review their organization’s business and communications objectives and ensure that every action taken is aligned with those objectives.  When those elements are misaligned, it can only invite trouble, which was made apparent in this fake press conference fiasco.

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4 Responses

  1. […] Fake press conference reflects FEMA’s culture […]

  2. I agree that FEMA cannot be held responsible for natural disasters; however, they do need to be responsible for doing thier jobs. Actually helping in the clean-up process in New Orleans, communicating with all branches of FEMA, and being able to admit when they make a mistake instead of passing the buck. But how can we expect FEMA to be honest and do their job when our president cannot?

  3. Melanie,

    You’re absolutely right. The problem with FEMA and the Bush administration is their lack of transparency. It’s difficult for the American people and the victims of disaster to know what’s really going on behind closed doors, and to determine if the decisions being made are, in fact, good for them. In both cases, the leaders of our nation and its federal agencies need to reassess their roles and objectives. They are not fulfilling their duties by deceiving the American public.

  4. FEMA’s deceitful press conference is only one example of the slew of bad mess-ups they’ve had over the years. This isn’t just a PR problem it’s an organizational, ethical and managerial disaster. FEMA not only needs a great PR team to revamp its public opinion, it needs structural change.

    When Katrina hit, chief of FEMA Michael Brown was irresponsible and lack-luster in his response and his knowledge of emergency management. Being a dedicated part of the Hurricane Katrina relief effort I’ve seen families battle over the issuing of trailers. I’ve met people who have received trailers with intoxicating levels of formaldehyde. I’ve met the people who didn’t have drinking water for days. It baffles me that a governmental agency designed to aid those affected by natural disasters does not have moral standards, common practices, and integral internal and external communication.

    Perhaps this lack of knowledge communication proves your previous blog (on Knowledge Management) right. Knowledge and sharing knowledge can make or break a company – or in FEMA’s case completely destroy their reputation. It’s important to use knowledgeable employee assets especially in natural disasters.

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