Category Archives: fake press conference

John "Pat" Philbin, former FEMA comm chief, now Senior VP at PIER Systems

The news is now out. John “Pat” Philbin, the head of External Affairs for FEMA who took the blame for the FEMA so-called “fake news conference” has a new job. He is now Senior VP for PIER Systems and he reports directly to me, the founder and CEO of PIER.

Here is the press release.

I will simply reiterate what I said in the release. We have known Pat for some time. From my very first post on this topic on this blog, I expressed doubts about the media coverage of the story based on what we knew of Pat. Numerous conversations with him since then confirmed my sense that he exhibited great integrity in accepting responsibility for the mistakes of others while not ducking his own mistakes. But the real story is one of media “infotainment” and spinning an event in such a way to make it look devious, contrived and manipulative while at the same time seeing that Washington politics is something where people look to throw whoever they can under the bus in order to protect their own reputations. It is a dangerous world for a communicator at that level to operate in and holds many lessons for communicators at all levels.

Phone lines and conference calls–from FEMA to Enbridge

I am more and more convinced that the time of press conferences is over. Either that, or communicators have to get a lot better about the technology.

Here’s a blog post about the crude pipeline disaster currently in the news regarding Enbridge (full disclosure, Enbridge is a client) titled “Worst. Conference Call. Ever.”

The problem: phone lines. Anyone who has tried to run a large scale telephone conference or a web meeting that includes a number of phone participants knows the challenges. Noise on the line, some dumbo goes for a bio break and puts their phone on hold which goes to music that every has to listen to. A siren goes by. Somebody starts talking to someone else in the room and he’s on speaker. So you hit the mute button–now people talk and don’t know they are on mute. Or you hit mute all and your conversation suddenly feels like you are talking to an blank wall in an empty building.

Enbridge staff clearly was having a problem managing the phone technology for a massive teleconference call. Unfortunately, as the snotty blog points out, the reputation damage acrues to the company who was trying to communicate with almost everyone at once rather than the phone company for not solving an all too common problem.

Regarding FEMA, I recently learned from a source very close to the supposed “fake news conference” event that it was the reporters themselves who requested that the phone lines not allow for questions. Yes, that is true folks. The very reporters who later reported that they were not allowed to ask questions requested that the phone lines be on mute. Why? Because they had had previous experiences with phone conferences like Enbridges. Talk about being damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

What is the answer? I think there are several.

1) get up to speed on the best ways of handling the phone technology. Test it, practice it, drill it.

2) Make clear what your approach is going to be re muting and explain the reasons, or give the participants the opportunity to weigh on the best approach.

3) Don’t rely on press conferences as a key element of getting info out. Frankly, for the most part they suck and are an artifact of a MSM-dominated era. That day is long past–although most in PR continue to forget that. What stakeholders, the public and all reporters/bloggers need is a steady stream of information in a variety of formats–fact sheets, situation updates, photos, videos, links to other reliable sources, etc. It should come not in spurts tagged to some long gone newscycle, but fed continually through a special website and delivered in multiple modes to all audiences with a high degree of interest.

This is what FEMA should have done instead of a hastily called and poorly organized press briefing. It is was the world now expects of Enbridge. Let’s hope they can deliver.

More on the real story about the FEMA press conference

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.

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

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.

FEMA's getting another public information black eye: "fake" news conference

I know for a fact that following Katrina, FEMA went out and hired some of the best and smartest communication people in the world. But, what happened here? A “fake” news conference? Someone wasn’t thinking. Apparently from the news report, FEMA called a press conference but called it with little lead time and not too many reporters showed up. So, rather than going with what they had or rescheduling it, they had some FEMA staff members pose as reporters and ask some softball questions. As the transcript shows, they sounded a lot more like willing FEMA staff members than seasoned reporters. Not sure how, but someone smelled a rat and now what is the story? The fire? No. FEMA doing a great job of responding? No. FEMA calling a fake press conference.

Oh boy. This is the age of transparency, people. This is about credibility. About not trying to fool anyone, ever, for any reason. It’s not about covering for someone because they didn’t leave enough lead time. It’s not about doing everything you can to look good when the cameras are on. It is about truth, honesty and building trust. Oh boy. Nuff said.