Yesterday, in response to the wildfires that have displaced more than a million people in California, FEMA’s deputy administrator, Vice Admiral Harvey Johnson, called a last minute press conference. As Al Kamen recounts in today’s Washington Post, it soon became clear that there was something very odd about the briefing. It seemed that the reporters in attendance were teeing up softball questions for Johnson to hit out of the park. One reporter asked, for instance, “what it means to have an emergency declaration as opposed to a major disaster declaration.” As Kamen put it, “the media seemed to be giving Johnson all day to wax on and on about FEMA’s greatness.” That’s because the “reporters” Johnson called on weren’t reporters at all, but members of FEMA’s PR shop, including the agency’s deputy director of external affairs, Cindy Taylor, and its deputy director of public affairs Mike Widomski. Shameless.
Update: Johnson has officially apologized for yesterday’s PR stunt, saying “We can and must do better, and apologize for this error in judgment. Our intent was to provide useful information and be responsive to the many questions we have received.” Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has called the episode “inexcusable and offensive to the secretary.” Are heads going to roll?