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Author Topic: FEMA Aide Loses New Job Over Fake News Conference  (Read 1098 times)

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FEMA Aide Loses New Job Over Fake News Conference
« on: October 30, 2007, 08:25:04 AM »
A fake news conference at the Federal Emergency Management Agency has produced, along with outrage and ridicule, its first personnel casualty.

 John P. Philbin, until last week the agency’s public relations chief, was supposed to start work Monday as the new director of public affairs for the nation’s top intelligence official, Mike McConnell.

But he learned instead that he would not.

“We do not normally comment on personnel matters,” said a statement issued for Mr. McConnell, the director of national intelligence. “However, we can confirm that Mr. Philbin is not, nor is he scheduled to be, the director of public affairs.”

Last Tuesday, two days before Mr. Philbin left the FEMA job, the agency’s deputy administrator held a televised news conference about the California fires where members of the agency’s staff, pretending to be reporters, asked him a series of easy questions.

No one has suggested that anybody at the agency set out to create a bogus event. But officials gave reporters only 15 minutes’ notice to show up at agency headquarters and then set up a telephone line that allowed them to listen in, but not ask questions.

With no reporters in the room — only television camera crews — FEMA’s public affairs department decided to go ahead with the event anyway. The agency’s own staff played the role of the press corps, posing unusually respectful questions for the deputy administrator, Vice Adm. Harvey E. Johnson Jr., retired. “Are you happy with FEMA’s response so far?” one asked.

In an interview Monday, Mr. Philbin said there had been no intention to deceive the public, just a desire to get information out quickly.

In retrospect, he said, when he realized that no reporters were in the room and it was the agency’s staff that was asking questions, he should have called off the news conference.

“I should have jumped up regardless of how awkward it would had been and said, ‘Wait a minute, time out,’” he said. “My mistake.”

The agency’s administrator, R. David Paulison, who was in California at the time, has come to the defense of Admiral Johnson, a retired Coast Guard officer, saying he was “put in a position” by mistakes of the public affairs staff that have unfairly raised questions about his credibility.

In a memo to FEMA employees Monday, Mr. Paulison said of M. Philbin, “The failure to properly schedule, or to cancel a press conference that had no press in attendance, or capability to ask questions telephonically, represented egregious decision making by the director of external affairs and his staff.”

From now on, Mr. Paulison said, reporters will always get adequate advance notice of news conferences.

“Finally, under no circumstances will anyone other than media be allowed to ask questions at press events,” Mr. Paulison’s statement said.

So far, it looks as if no others will lose their jobs over the incident, but the public affairs office is being reshuffled. As of Monday, Russ Knocke, the press secretary for the Department of Homeland Security, FEMA’s parent, has been temporarily transferred to the agency to supervise the press operation.

The development has been enormously embarrassing for the agency, which is still struggling to rebuild its reputation after its universally criticized response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The Web Team
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