A blogger conference call with FEMA Deputy Chief Admiral Johnson

Blogging certainly has its benefits and this morning I was one of 6 bloggers invited to participate in an interactive conference call with Admiral Harvey Johnson, number 2 at FEMA. Since it is Martin Luther King Day, the last day of this leadership group’s employment at FEMA, and the purpose seemed quite clearly to help communicate the many positive changes at FEMA, I still am slightly confused as to what it was all about. But, it was a great opportunity and I very much appreciate the information and the way FEMA leadership is aggressively trying to address the reputation challenges it continues to experience.

A few takeaways:

– FEMA is very serious about social media and engaging in the new world of communication. This blogger call is a great example. Clearly they are following blogs that involve their space (including this one) and are aware of what bloggers are saying. They also believe, evidenced by this call, that bloggers are or can be influential in public opinion. This was a very direct, engaging and effective way of communicating directly to those they believe will impact the thinking of the media, other opinion leaders and the general public about FEMA. (As I was writing these words, I received a follow up email from the call facilitator, thanking me for participating and providing a detailed list of follow up points. Impressive.)

– The call was effective. I came away impressed with Admiral Johnson, Administrator Paulison and the many changes that have been made. In general terms the key changes I picked up on were: Vision, Investment in People and Business Practices. Regarding Vision, FEMA has broadened its role considerably. The Admiral mentioned Prevent, Protect, Respond and Recover as four key elements and moving from much more proactive vs reactive response. He came back several times to the agency’s investment in people and how the SES (Senior Executive Service–non-political appointees) that they have put in place will enable the agency to continue to develop along the lines set by this group despite a change in administration. Business practice improvements means that FEMA has improved how it does procurement and manages the business of providing funds and resources–critically important given the level of publicity that the agency has received regarding its incompetence in this area in the past.

– In response to my question about the difference in reputation public information management between the Coast Guard and FEMA (The Admiral was in the CG before FEMA), he responded by commenting on the differences between the CG’s mission and FEMA. The CG has good news stories every day, he noted, with rescues, enforcement, etc. “The Coast Guard does not say ‘no,'” he said. Whereas FEMA is frequently in the position of having to say no to requests. He also pointed to the CG’s investment in people–an up or out system, everyone above Lt CMDR with advanced degrees, people hating to leave after their 30 years. Just not the same with FEMA but they are trying to change that again with their investment in people, in training, in longer term employment. And he brought up what I think is much more key–information management policies. In the CG everyone has the right to speak but only on their own responsibilities. In FEMA, everyone can speak but without the same level of information discipline–so there are contradictions, inconsistencies and lack of a single voice. He also brought up the fact that once you have a tainted reputation it takes a long time to repair it.

– I also asked about the disparity between ESF15 (DHS/FEMA’s public information management plan when responding at a national level) and the FEMA PIO Guidance Manual and the National Response Team’s JIC manual–a key issue for agencies who need to prepare to roll from local to regional to national response. He stated that he thinks FEMA does a good job with public information  management but that “ESF15 had not quite found itself,” that it “was not quite solid yet.” He noted how dynamic the public information world was–this call with bloggers for example–and that it was hard to keep up with the policies and plans as encoded in documents like ESF15.  I was encourage to hear him say that these issues including ESF15 were discussed at high levels in FEMA and they are interested in how to make it more effective. My simple answer in case anyone is listening–take the political messaging control out of the equation and focus on simply providing the best information you can about what you are doing with the greatest amount of speed, direct communication with key audiences (not just the media) and with maximum transparency. Simple.

– Regarding FEMA in the future and the transition to the Obama administration, he spoke very highly of Nancy Ward, the interim director. The Admiral believes that with the senior leadership (non political appointees) in place, the positive steps taken will contine. That the Obama administration will continue high level of support for FEMA and that the basic elements he identified of Vision, Investing in People and Business Practices will continue to produce the results that we all look for in FEMA.

My thanks to the public information team at FEMA, thank you John Shea, and Admiral Johnson for this opportunity and a job well done.

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