WASHINGTON: Hoping to restore his reputation in the public affairs profession, ex-Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) director of external affairs John P. “Pat” Philbin is now speaking out publicly about the circumstances surrounding the reportedly “fake” news conference FEMA held during the recent California wildfires.
Philbin told PRWeek that there was never any intent to pretend FEMA staffers were media or otherwise prevent media from asking questions during a televised press conference on October 23. The currently unemployed Philbin (plans to appoint him as spokesperson for the Office for the Director of National Intelligence were dropped after the story broke) said that initially after leaving FEMA he intended to stop commenting publicly about the press conference in the hope that the story would die out.
“[But] my concern is that people who know very little about what happened have drawn conclusions and now I'm battling to recover my reputation and what I believe to be a fairly stellar career,” which includes serving as chief of public affairs for the US Coast Guard, Philbin said. “People were calling me and saying, ‘Hey, they are lighting you up on all the blogs as the one responsible for this.'”
Philbin said that as the head of external affairs, he was indeed responsible for the mix-up at the press conference, but that he had told his staff to give at least an hour notice to reporters of the conference – instead, media received just 15 minutes' notice – and did not realize when he walked in with the deputy administrator who was serving as the conference spokesperson that the media line was on listen-only mode.
Asked why he permitted staff to ask questions of the deputy administrator in place of media, Philbin said only that “other professionals have told me that to get things going, staff will ask a question or two, and they did,” but that he should have intervened and stopped the conference.
“I should have said, ‘Wait a minute, this isn't right,'” Philbin said. “But there was no malicious intent here. People were working fast, on very little sleep, and they were just trying to get information out. Under a confluence of really bad decisions under a tight window, this is what happened.”
Saying the fallout from the debacle has been “devastating” for his wife and family, Philbin has written an Op-Ed that he hopes will run in the Washington Post or, if not there, in the New York Times, explaining more fully the sequence of events.
Following the uproar over the botched news conference, CNN obtained an internal FEMA memo from agency head David Paulison saying that the public affairs staff's “actions represented a breach of ethical practice that tore at the credibility of FEMA, the deputy administrator and that of their own office.” In addition, DHS secretary Michael Chertoff called it “one of the dumbest and most inappropriate things I've seen since I've been in government
DHS press secretary Russ Knocke, who is temporarily heading the FEMA press office, did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Philbin's latest public statements.