FEMA’s sad new spin on fake news

In 2001, it was discovered that Sony Pictures created fake reviews for movies such as “The Patriot” and “A Knight’s Tale.” According to the BBC, practices included planting fake review quotes by nonexistent authors in advertisements and using “audience testimony” film reactions actually made by Sony Pictures staff members. Rather than dealing with an onslaught of negative reviews, the studio decided to control audience perceptions of the films. They fabricated the press the movies received in order to control it; since they couldn’t beat the movie reviewers, why not join and become them? Not to be outdone by Hollywood, it appears the government is following in the entertainment industry’s footsteps.

Last week, FEMA staged a press conference to discuss the government agency’s handling of the wildfires in California. The conference was announced only 15 minutes before it was set to begin, meaning that members of the press could only listen by phone. However, when video was released of the press conference, people were directing questions towards Harvey Johnson, the Deputy Administrator of FEMA.

It turns out these people were actually FEMA employees acting as members of the press, asking simple questions of Johnson which could easily yield positive answers (“Are you happy with FEMA’s response so far?”). This way, the agency could prevent those pesky members of the press junket from actually doing their job, possibly creating another Hurricane Katrina-style public relations nightmare for FEMA. However, through this very misguided attempt to boost their image amongst the American public, FEMA has managed to further tarnish its name.

Ever since I heard about this story, I have been trying to figure out exactly why FEMA decided to go through with such a guaranteed public relations nightmare. Chances are, had this been a press conference conducted under normal circumstances, it would have only gotten a passing mention on the evening news, with little controversy. Now FEMA has a big mess on its hands, one that could have been prevented. And FEMA is not exactly an agency that has an untarnished public relations and a good performance track record in the first place.

FEMA is clearly concerned about public image. According to Reuters U.K., positive press put out by FEMA during the immediate aftermath of Katrina made then-administrator Michael Brown quip, “I am a fashion god.” I can’t help but ask, who thought it would be a good idea to take an agency suffering from weak public perception, pull a stunt that shows blatant disregard for fair judgment of their actions in recent days, and risk putting another nail in the coffin?

This is not to say FEMA has performed inadequately under the current circumstances in California. However, the fact they are manipulating the American media and the American public is not right. Rather than conducting a legitimate press conference that would help the public draw their own conclusions about the answers to questions asked by real reporters, FEMA has denied the public that opportunity.

In a statement released to real members of the press, Johnson stated, “Our intent was to provide useful information and be responsive to the many questions we have received.” Wait, how are you providing useful information? The “useful information” was simply positive reinforcement of FEMA’s efforts, and the opinions of the staff members. Obviously the questions the agency had received were so important that they didn’t want members of the press ruining them with incorrect phrasing, so they took the responsibility of asking the questions directed towards themselves by themselves.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff (who oversees FEMA) called the event “one of the dumbest, and one of the most inappropriate things I’ve seen since I’ve been in government.” I can’t help but imagine that the mishandling of the Katrina preparation and recovery is another one of; if not the single most inappropriate things Chertoff has seen. If not, I’m not sure if I want to know what was worse. For the record, according to CNN, when Chertoff made this statement in a press conference, the Associated Press was the only media outlet invited. Some lessons are never learned.

In 2005, Sony Pictures was court ordered to pay $5 to each person who attended the films in question. Maybe FEMA should take action rather than backpedaling as Sony did and the agency is doing now. As Bob Schieffer of CBS News stated on Face The Nation, “As part of a massive new PR campaign, [FEMA] might even consider taking the PR staff from behind their desks and sending them to deliver food and water to the fire victims.” That would certainly be one heck of a job for the agency to do, as long as they don’t perform the same stunt again.