More on the real story about the FEMA press conference

November 12, 2007

The unique opportunity to discuss this situation at length with Pat Philbin, the former Director of External Affairs at FEMA, provides an important reminder of being careful about coming to conclusions based on what you see/hear/read in the media. And my initial caution about this not being consistent with what I know of those in charge was justified.

Here is the truth: Pat Philbin, like the good former military officer he is, accepted full responsibility for the press conference gone awry. His superiors, including Secretary Chertoff, in an immediate desire to protect their credibility and the reputation of the agencies involved, piled on Philbin. Understandable, but regretful. Particularly when their own internal investigation essentially exonerated him. The Washington Post report of that investigation which was released on November 9 is presented below.

From what I now know, I believe Mr. Philbin made two mistakes. One, when he walked into a press conference that was botched by his staff, he should have stopped it immediately and at a minimum made clear to the reporters on the line that those asking the questions were FEMA staff and that they had to resort to this method of getting the info out because of the failure to adequately notify reporters and then not allow them to ask questions by telephone. Second, he allowed about a week to go by before beginning to aggressively address the rumors, accusations, misinformation and damage to his reputation he was experiencing. In truth, when I had the opportunity to challenge him personally on this, I did not. These are the difficult calls in reputation management. When do you let a bad situation go quiet, hoping that it will die down and go away? In this case and with the benefit of hindsight, Mr. Philbin clearly needed to help set the record straight in order to protect an outstanding reputation for leadership in open, honest, credible public communication.

FEMA Press Secretary Directed Fake News Briefing, Inquiry Finds

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 9, 2007; A19

An internal investigation into a fake news conference staged by the
Federal Emergency Management Agency during last month’s California
wildfires found that the agency’s press secretary directed aides to
pose as reporters, secretly coached them during the briefing and ended
the event after a final, scripted question was asked, according to a
senior FEMA official.

The inquiry, completed Monday, left several unanswered questions. It
could not corroborate accounts that the agency’s No. 2 official,
Harvey E. Johnson Jr., was told before he led the Oct. 23 briefing
that FEMA staff members would pose questions.

Nor did the inquiry fully explain the event’s rushed timing. FEMA
announced the news conference at its Southwest Washington headquarters
about 15 minutes before it was to begin at 1 p.m., making it unlikely
that reporters could attend. None did, and real reporters listening on
a telephone conference line were barred from asking questions.

FEMA officials hurriedly went ahead with the event, and Johnson, who
was live on some cable news channels, praised FEMA’s response as far
better than its reaction to Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.

The review “found nothing that indicated malicious or preconceived
intent to deceive the media or the public,” said FEMA’s acting
director of external affairs, Russ Knocke, who conducted the inquiry.
“As an aside, the content of the press event was accurate,” Knocke
said Wednesday night. “It is obvious that there was a significant lack
of leadership within FEMA external affairs.”

In an interview, FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison said the
agency’s press secretary, Aaron Walker, resigned at his request,
effective Dec. 7. Walker is the second top FEMA communications aide
and political appointee to leave the Bush administration as a result
of the event. Earlier, the director of national intelligence withdrew
an offer to FEMA’s director of external affairs at the time, John
“Pat” Philbin, to serve as his office’s director of public affairs.

Paulison said he did not expect additional disciplinary action but
would reorganize and retrain the agency’s 90-member external affairs
staff.

“Those are career people. They should have stepped up and said
something, they really should have. But their bosses said ‘Do this,’
and they did it — some reluctantly, but there’s no excuses for that,”
Paulison said. He called the impact on FEMA’s credibility
“devastating.”

A senior FEMA official described the investigation’s findings but
spoke on the condition of anonymity and would not make them public,
citing information about personnel.

According to the review, Philbin was told around 11:50 a.m. to hold a
briefing that afternoon and instructed Walker minutes later to do so
at 1 p.m., but there is no clear explanation for why that time was
chosen. It was 12:43 p.m. before aides worked out details and notified
reporters.

At 12:54 p.m., six minutes before the briefing was to start, Walker
sent an e-mail telling members of the external affairs staff to be
prepared to fill chairs and “to spur discussion” in the absence of
reporters.

Walker specifically told Mike Widomski, deputy director of public
affairs, which question to ask first and assigned press aide Ali Kirin
to ask a sixth and final question. Off camera, Walker encouraged staff
members in the room to continue asking questions, even as he pretended
to cut off discussion, interjecting at one point, “Two more
questions,” the FEMA official said.

In an interview, Walker said he did not apologize for his actions and
said he had planned since September to leave FEMA to seek
private-sector work in Utah.

“Across the board, there was no effort to misinform, to put on a
charade. It was simply a poor choice across the board of a method to
get some information out,” Walker said. “This is the best job I’ve
ever had. I loved it.”

The review concluded that Johnson, a retired Coast Guard vice admiral
and FEMA’s deputy administrator, was “poorly served” by aides who
rushed him into the news conference without explaining the
circumstances.

Two career employees signed statements saying that Walker told them
either that he told or planned to tell Johnson before the event that
questions would be choreographed.

But Johnson told the investigation that “he does not recall being
advised that staff would be asking questions.” Of four aides with
Johnson before the briefing, three, including Walker, also said they
also did not recall whether he was told. One said he clearly was not
told, the FEMA official said.

“There is not a lot of consistency in terms of recollection of what
was said, but it’s clear from everyone that there was not an adequate
briefing,” the FEMA official said. “There was poor staff service of
agency leadership.”

Paulison said he had “tremendous confidence” in Johnson. He praised
his deputy’s honesty and ethics and the “ungodly amount of hours”
Johnson has spent rebuilding the agency. “It wasn’t intentional, but
he was set up,” Paulison said, “and he walked in there, and he didn’t
know everyone in the room.”

In an earlier statement, Johnson said FEMA’s intent was to provide
information as soon as possible, and he apologized “for this error in
judgment.”

FEMA has announced it will give at least one hour’s notice of future
news conferences, allow only reporters to ask questions and no longer
bar reporters listening on teleconference lines from asking questions.

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