FEMA wraps briefing review

WASHINGTON: The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has finished an internal review of a highly criticized news conference and has vowed changes in its press policies.

WASHINGTON: The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has finished an internal review of a highly criticized news conference and has vowed changes in its press policies.

The fiasco took place on October 23, when a hastily planned press conference failed to draw media on-site, so FEMA employees posed as reporters, asking questions about FEMA's work on the California wildfires. Reporters who called into a conference line were placed in "listen only" mode and thus could not ask questions.

William "Russ" Knocke, FEMA's acting head of external communications, told PRWeek that the internal review found "a significant lack of management in the preparation and execution of the press event," and overall "bad decision-making." He added that he found "no malicious or preconceived attempt to deceive the public."

He said the historic practice of placing reporters in "listen only" mode because of noise considerations would be reconsidered.

Reporters had said they felt deceived by the "listen only" mode.

Knocke added that FEMA's communications staff may not have had adequate training to do its job.

"In the field, almost all the external affairs officers have journalism backgrounds, but at [FEMA] HQ, I don't think anybody does," he said. "You're dealing in ethics and journalistic practices, and we have a staff where a number don't have that training in journalism."

The agency is now exploring professional development partnerships with groups such as PRSA.

The review will "not necessarily" be made public, but its findings will be used to help strengthen internal communications practices, Knocke said.

The incident has prompted the resignation of press secretary Aaron Walker and it cost former communications director John "Pat" Philbin a post at the National Intelligence Office.

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