California fires–on accommodating elected officials needs

September 2, 2009

Still in Pasadena with a front row seat to the devastating fires. It’s hard for me not to look at the newspaper and local television news from the standpoint of writing plans for regional emergency communications, since that is what I am doing largely these days. One element of the plan has to include accommodating the need for the top elected officials to helicopter in and get their air time.

I have to say how ludicrous it feels to me sitting watching on the tube. This morning Gov. Schwarzenegger and LA Mayor Villaraigosa (hope I got that right) both did their standups just in time for the morning news. The news crews breathlessly followed the mayor as he transferred from and LAPD helicopter near to a LA County Fire Department helicopter, providing the complete model number of the new helicopter he was flying in. There were numerous shots of the press conference scene where the PIOs were busily preparing the podium and background, including affixing the governor’s seal to the podium, while awaiting his arrival. Now I will be the first to say that the Governor does one of the best standups I’ve ever seen–I was superimpressed the way he took on media complaints a couple of years ago in similar situations. But the question is, what does all this have to do with the fires and the concerns of people whose lives are being impacted. The news reporters tell how the two are being briefed on the latest situation by the very communicators and incident commanders who have just briefed the news reporters with the same information.

No doubt JIC plans and agency communication plans will have to continue to accommodate the needs for this often pointless and too-often political exercise. The really bad side of it, as was seen in the DC train crash, will cause some to pause. And in truly dire circumstances, such as 9/11, having highly visible and credible leadership who are seen as deeply involved in helping manage the event is very important and reassuring to the public. But those circumstances didn’t apply this morning. I suspect as the public moves further and further away from traditional media and this kind of essentially irrelevant coverage, going instead direct to those credible sources of information that provide the actual news that is relevant to them, maybe this kind of sideshow will diminish. If so, the job of emergency managers and communicators will become a little simpler and the public better served.

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