The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is not, primarily, a PR organization. It is actually tasked with managing emergencies.
This is sometimes hard to recall because it seems to make the news only when its PR staff is doing something idiotic. During Katrina, they busied themselves fulfilling the vital role of advisers on proper shirtsleeve length to then-director Michael Brown. And most recently - just when it seemed that the agency couldn't possibly make another titanic gaffe - its employees decided to play reporters for a day.
By now, the story is familiar. Eager to get information out on its successes managing the California wildfires, FEMA called a press conference with 15 minutes' notice. When, surprisingly, no reporters were able to attend in that time frame, the agency decided to have its own staffers in the audience pose (rather softball) questions as if they were reporters.
When news of this got out to the media, all hell broke loose.
Its overtones of "Heckuva job, Brownie" and the Armstrong Williams scandal rolled into one were painful to watch.
Even by DC's wacky standards, public affairs experts were astonished at FEMA's blatant disregard for common sense.
"The only time I've heard of stuff like that is when we cover the 'don'ts' for media training," says Bill McIntyre, EVP of Grassroots Enterprises and former chief spokesman for the National Rifle Association. "It's a stupid con carried out poorly."
Indeed, virtually no DC veteran could remember anything in the annals of government communications mishaps that approached this level of idiocy. Chris Battle, who held public affairs positions at such agencies as the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Department of Homeland Security before joining the Adfero Group as a VP, says he has never seen anything quite like it.
"Usually in a crisis communications situation, the danger is to circle the wagons... which causes delay and can be very damaging," Battle says. "To Homeland Security's credit here, [it] tried to move very quickly, but in the course of doing so, [it caused] a different sort of problem that is equally, if not more so, damaging."
Asked if there are formal rules barring public affairs officers from engaging in such practices, Battle says diplomatically that it is assumed that professionals "would know better." He does note that it is not uncommon for government agencies, when faced with the prospect of a lightly attended press conference, to bring in people to fill in the audience for appearance' sake. But he stresses that "those bodies are just warming seats."
Gene Grabowski, who spent more than a decade as a reporter in Washington before becoming SVP at Levick Strategic Communications, also recalls that "in Washington in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, congressional staff would often fill empty seats at news briefings or press conferences on Capitol Hill or the National Press Club when a lawmaker knew TV cameras would be recording the event so as to give the impression that more representatives of the news media were present than was actually the case."
Despite that, Grabowski adds, "I've never seen any group or politician stage a fake news conference with non-journalists as brazenly as FEMA did."
To the government's credit, it appears to have learned that these situations should be taken seriously. FEMA external communications director John "Pat" Philbin was fired, and a rumored new job for him as a spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence quickly evaporated in the face of relentless news coverage.
"PR pros need to know that the business of trying to con the media doesn't work. Sooner or later, the con comes out," says Wes Pedersen, former Washington reporter and public affairs veteran who now heads his own firm in DC. "FEMA had no option; it had to fire the guy responsible. It's been caught making so many dumb plays elsewhere, it couldn't afford the heat from a scandal."