As the former director of external affairs for FEMA, I was responsible to ensure that information about the federal response to the California wildfires was delivered swiftly, accurately, and transparently. As context, FEMA responds to between 200 and 1000 media calls weekly.
Under normal circumstances, public affairs staff members disseminate a daily written summary of federal activity for incidents of this magnitude in accordance with an interagency communication protocol known as Emergency Support Function 15. When necessary, press briefings are held to keep the public informed of the latest developments.
In this case, there was enormous pressure from many directions to ensure that the public witnessed a markedly different response in comparison to Hurricane Katrina—including the communications effort. The staff, exhausted from round-the-clock duty, dropped the ball on announcing the brief in a timely manner. I was busy with meetings and unaware prior to the brief that reporters had been given inadequate time to arrive and the phone line was listen only. The staff tried to salvage the event by asking the kind of questions they had been fielding from reporters that morning, but I did not authorize this nor was it part of our normal procedures.
In this case, there was no conspiracy and no reason to hatch one. The California wildfire operations had gone reasonably well, especially FEMA's efforts. There was no bad news to hide, and there were no hard questions to duck. Even if there had been bad news, FEMA would have disclosed the information based on the principle of maximum disclosure with minimum delay—a characteristic that enhances credibility.
Mistakes were made by well-intended staff, and I made two. I did not ensure that staff had made adequate preparations. And when I found out in the middle of the briefing, I did not intervene. Because I was in charge, I take responsibility for letting this hastily planned briefing go forward. However, neither I nor anyone else on the staff is guilty of any attempt to deceive.
I have more than 20 years of experience providing communications counsel to senior executives and organizations on responding to crises. I would never plan or condone the event that happened. In an effort to protect my family, I kept quiet to let the media frenzy subside. In doing so, however, I ignored my own professional training, instincts, and education to set the record straight immediately.
Among other qualities, effective communication efforts rely on transparency, accuracy and integrity. FEMA has worked extraordinarily hard since Katrina to improve its business processes and response operations as well as its communications.
I especially regret that in our communication efforts to inform the public about the work of dedicated FEMA employees, the media focused on its perception that we intentionally sought to mislead them rather than on the terrific progress and transformation of a much-maligned agency dedicated to enhancing the lives of disaster victims.
John P. Philbin was previously director of external affairs for FEMA