Time to stop the piling on about FEMA–my discussion with Pat Philbin

November 1, 2007

Having had the unusually good fortune of having lunch with Dr. John “Pat” Philbin in DC yesterday, I would ask those observing from outside to take it a little easy here. Here’s an example of going over the top in making judgments when circumstances are not fully known: the PR News take on it.

How did my lunch with Pat come about? I was in DC in meetings with consulting firms about the communication technology we provide. Mr. Philbin is a former customer of ours in a previous position, a strong advocate of our technology and a friend of the company. That’s why when I posted initially about this incident I expressed some real caution of rushing to judgment knowing the quality and character of the people involved.

To respect Mr. Philbin’s desires regarding a fuller explanation, I will not divulge the specifics of the situation–at least at this time.  But I will make a few general comments.

No doubt, mistakes were made. No doubt some of those could have been avoided through  better coordination and communication management technology has a strong role to play in that. But, this is also a good example of infotainment at work. Given the spotlight on FEMA following the Katrina debacle, any story suggesting that lessons had not been learned is going to be the automatic main narrative. While the Economist, for example, has written very positively about FEMA’s success as well as the other agencies working together in dealing with the disaster in Southern California, the story about the good work has been completely lost in our media because of what has become a story about some form of fakery or cover-up. As most of us in crisis management teach repeatedly, credibility is critical, we live in an age of transparency, and any hint of cover-up will quickly supercede whatever the story was about to begin with. The story of a “fake news conference” attracts an audience much faster and more effectively than telling what a great job dedicated government employees are doing to deal with a disaster.

As all of us in this business consider what happened in California on October 23, I ask you also to look at the bigger picture. FEMA has made tremendous progress in restoring public trust and part of it was by creating a culture of openness and transparency. It is evident in how they are providing much faster and better information about the status of payments in Louisiana, and in the planning for  dealing with major crises.

Ultimately the lesson is that this is the media environment we live in. It may be nasty, unfair, and vicious. It is not driven by the old journalistic ethic of what is the real story that needs to be conveyed, but much more by what it takes to attract and hold an increasingly scarce audience. Any form of cover-up story sells. Just remember that in the real world the white hats are usually not nearly so white, nor are the black hats nearly so dark as is depicted in the melodramatic world of today’s media coverage.

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