FEMA News Conference Disaster Teaches Valuable PR Lesson

Unless you’ve been out of the country recently, chances are you’ve heard about the fake news conference held by the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) public affairs department about the wildfires in California. While a lot of governmental affairs are beyond my understanding, this PR misstep is one that will be dissected for years to come.

Here’s a rundown of the events. On Tuesday, October 23rd, FEMA officials alerted the press of a “news briefing” only 15 minutes before it was scheduled to begin. Reporters were also invited to call in and listen to the briefing, but they were not allowed to ask questions. Since only a few from the media had time to get there, FEMA staffers posed as reporters and asked deputy administrator Harvey Johnson a series of “soft” questions related to the California wildfires. By Friday of that week, FEMA officials had admitted that the press briefing hadn’t been authentic, and have since come under heavy criticism—even from their own top boss, Michael Chertoff.

As a PR student, this incident makes for some heated class discussion. We recently completed a unit on business ethics in PR, advertising, and marketing, so it was exciting to discuss these values in relation to this real-world occurrence. High personal ethical standards are important in any profession, and many are wondering how reputable government officials could be capable of making such poor decisions.

Now FEMA officials are left trying to do their own spin control. A Baltimore Sun blog had a statement from FEMA chief David Paulison, apologizing for this incident, and a recent CNN article also offered additional details into the PR fiasco. In a public memo, Paulison criticized FEMA’s public affairs department, saying that the event “represented egregious decision-making” saying that his staff “lost perspective of the core imperative that they preserve the credibility of our agency.”

No stranger to controversy, FEMA’s credibility has been under scrutiny in recent years, especially in relation to its reaction to Hurricane Katrina, so this certainly wasn’t the time for another public relations catastrophe. It will be interesting to observe the after-effects of this mistake, and I am betting that this fake news briefing will be discussed all the way from university PR classes to corporate boardrooms for years to come.

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