Category Archives: Pat Philbin

Can you blog your way out of a crisis?

There is more and more discussion about using blogs as a crisis management tool. Steve Phenix, a smart blogger for certain, sent me an email with his promotional message for blogging during a crisis–using his PR firm. And he used his own reputation crisis as an example of how it works. First, here’s the story about how he got caught in a rather dumb publicity stunt by a client.

His email message (unfortunately, he didn’t provide a weblink) said this:

Bad publicity, I’m sure you know, is just plain bad for your client’s business. And here’s some scary facts to consider, according to a recent survey [PDF]:
62% of searchers click on a first page results
90% click on a result within the first three pages
So basically your clients are losing money the longer bad news remains on Google’s first few pages. And guess what? The client probably blames your agency for the bad news even appearing in the press. The good news is that only 10% of searchers are willing to click past the third page.

But the question is, how is it possible to move negative press down in Google rankings?

With the rapid, cataclysmic changes affecting the PR industry–with economists saying that recession is here (WSJ), news outlets laying people off and going bankrupt, while according to We Media/Zogby Interactive, “nearly 70 percent of Americans believe traditional journalism is out of touch, and nearly half are turning to the Internet to get their news”–blogs are becoming more and more the best way to communicate client messages.

In fact, blogs are the ideal tool to contain a crises. And that’s where Phenix Public Relations comes in.

I know blogging works because I employed my own blog to halt a potentially career-ending crises five years ago and have successfully used this tactic with many other clients ever since.

Briefly, here’s the details:

I had a client out of the Netherlands that pulled an April Fool’s Day joke on the Wall Street Journal, plus Reuters, AP, USA Today, Variety and many others. When the European media began calling at 4 AM Texas time, I immediately fired the client and began calling every U.S. reporter who had covered the story or even thought about it.  I endured a two-hour interrogation from a WSJ deputy editor who wanted to know what I knew and when I knew it. I even wrote handwritten letters to all the reporters.

Ultimately, my company and I were held blameless and suffered no immediate no damage to our reputation. However, soon I noticed that when you googled my name, this disastrous episode was all over the front page. There was blood, alright. I couldn’t take the chance that potential clients would see these stories and read too fast and never see how well we handled the crisis.

I was very worried that my career was finished till I read an article that blogging can help drive negative news down on Google. Until then I just played around with blogging, but with my financial future at stake, I got serious with my experimentation. Long story short, if you google my name now this negative story is very hard to find.

Here’s why blogs — or rather OUR blogs — work to contain a crises:

Here’s Steve’s companies site, Phenix PR. 

I have another, much closer to home example of how blogging can help address a personal reputation crisis. Our current (for PIER Systems) Senior VP in Washington DC got caught up in a Washington dustup, as they say, and this extensive blogpost by Kami Huyse did more than just about anything to set the record straight.

No, you can’t blog your way out of a crisis. But as anyone knows who has been caught in a major crisis, what happens online matters a lot. What shows up in Google is both an indicator of trouble and trouble itself. Blogging is one absolutely critical way to address the comments, questions and problems head on. Talk directly to those who are trying hard to influence others with their very limited information and perspective. And in the process, help at least balance out the data on the Internet that shows up in Google searches.

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.

What really happened at that FEMA news conference–in Philbin's words

I have commented here several times and from the beginning that the supposedly “fake” news conference FEMA conducted in October was not what was being told in the press. That it was more about politics, the politicization of government agencies, about media infotainment than many seasoned PR professionals believed. It strikes me as ironic that we who know you can’t believe what you read in the press are among the quickest to believe when it conforms to a predisposition–in this case the predisposition being that FEMA is a bad, incompetent evil agency and anyone associated with it is too.

At any rate, read (or hear ) for yourself what happened at this news conference from the fall guy himself–Pat Philbin, courtesy of this interview with Kami Huyse.

The audio feed is courtesy of Shel Holtz’s For Immediate Release.

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.