The New FEMA Public Information Officer Guide

December 24, 2007

FEMA has recently published a new guide for Public Information Officers. Thanks to JimmyJazz of Break Glass blog, I have a copy and just finished reviewing it.


Frankly, I’m very impressed and very pleased. It is clear, concise, well-organized, well written and very helpful. Unlike ESF 15, FEMAs’ own guide for how it will handle public communication, this clearly is based on real life experience and not driven by higher political requirements.

Here’s my quick take on what is good, not so good, and ugly.

The Good:

– clear, concise and appropriate level of ICS familiarity and role of PIO and JIC in that.

– role and use of websites
– inclusion of blogs and social media as part of the mix
– reference (though not enough) to the PIO as the source of both internal and external communication
– comprehensive list of dissemination methods
– inclusion of the Virtual JIC concept (but with serious faults)

The Bad

– Media centric–assumes basic communication is very media focused and does not take into consideration that information is moving more and more direct. While websites are considered, it still seems clear that they are seen primarily as a means of communicating with main stream media, and no consideration is given to prepare key audience contact info in advance for direct communication, nor capturing contact info for those who want to get updates directly. A major problem.

– Clarity around the Joint Information System vs. Joint Information Center. I don’t think this is the manual writer’s fault because DHS introduced this confusion very early on and has never really clarified it. I think this manual actually goes a long way to helping clear some confusion in that the JIS is focused on procedures by the JIC is a physical location. Even that gets muddy with the concept of Virtual JIC.

– Virtual JIC–while it was good that it was mentioned, it seems clear that there is little understanding of the concept nor experience in dealing with virtual JICs. There is an appropriate reference to using a Virtual JIC in a pandemic (we find it ironic that most agencies plan to gather PIOs together in one room so they can communicate to the rest of the world the stupidity of such a move). It is clear that the basic planning construct of FEMA and the PIOs they are trying to advise is to put together a Joint Information Center– a physical location for communicators from various agencies. This will all but assure the communication failures they experienced in the past. Major events are covered in minutes and hours–but JICS take days to fully staff and equip. I heard one FEMA PIO talk proudly about how they set up all these JICs for Katrina in the first week of the event. Yeah, but by the time they got them established, the news media had experienced a huge vacuum of information and decided that FEMA wasn’t doing squat. So when FEMA said, OK, now we are ready to tell you all the good things we are doing, the media story line had been sold and there wasn’t any going back. Too little too late, and this non-virtual based plan will only continue the policy of too little too late.

The Ugly

There are two areas where I think this goes seriously wrong:

1) lack of recognition of the need for speed (covered in my discussion about virtual JICs)

2) attempt at connecting up with ESF 15.

ESF 15 is the document prepared by DHS that outlines how the agency will respond in a major event. Clearly it was done post-Katrina and is an attempt to deal with the problems the agency encountered. It seems that the single lesson learned was that DHS and its member agencies are part of an administration that has been pummeled by the political opposition and the liberal media and therefore they see the information response as primarily an exercise in political messaging and control. That is a friggin disaster for transparent government emergency communication. And the contrast between the essential goodness and rightness of the PIO manual combined with the political directiveness of the ESF 15 manual makes the point even clearer.

A couple of key examples: In ESF 15, the JIC is all but gutted. The only role for the JIC, indeed the definition of the JIC, is media response. All other communication functions go elsewhere. That means all stakeholder, government, liaison, tribal, local community, public-direct, victim, state and local agency–all this communication is managed outside of the JIC. Now, if you understand that the JIC was set up to coordinate communication among multiple response agencies you see that this completely undermines the idea of mutual support and cooperation.

Where do these functions go? Well, for example, there is a new group called Production and Planning. These people are responsible for “message strategy.” Here’s a clue. Why do you need message strategists when the purpose of the PIO is to provide fast, transparent, accurate information about what is happening in the incident and what the responders are doing about it.

That’s enough for this post, but the degree of politicization I see in the public information function coming out of DHS is positively frightening. Then, when I see it played out in real life in situations such as the unreasonable pressure on for a press conference in California, the response to the problems with that conference, and even more for the firing of a respected commander of the Coast Guard for an inaccurate initial spill volume report in the Cosco Busan San FranciscoBay spill, I see there is something very, very wrong here.

When you have agencies that need the public to trust them to be effective, such as FEMA and the Coast Guard who then get reduced to political weapons (both by those supporting them and those attacking them) it is no wonder that we in the public get cynical and apathetic.


One Response to “The New FEMA Public Information Officer Guide”

  1. Jimmy Jazz Says:

    That’s exactly why I made sure that you saw that, Gerald. I knew you’d decipher it better than anyone else I knew.

    Thanks for the review, and have a great holiday, Jimmy

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