FEMA – A Public Relations Embarassment

November 12, 2006 at 5:15 pm 1 comment

The United States’ Federal Emergency Response Agency (FEMA) has been a public relations (PR) embarrassment for most of its history. Recently, it was the scapegoat for everything Hurricane Katrina related. Headlines reagarding FEMA’s reaction to the disaster read: “Aid workers turned away at the Louisiana border”, “Housing Trailers sitting in empty warehouses”, “Hundreds of New Orleans stuck inside the Convention Centre”. What I uncovered in my research was that most of the accusations against the federal agency were in fact true, but that the agency had also done some good in the past. Unfortunately FEMA’s poor performance in the wake of hurricane Katrina left Americans and the US government wondering if FEMA is still an effective government body in its current form.

Since its inception in 1979, FEMA has been a flawed and heavily criticized government body. Originally formed as a one-stop shop for previous federal emergency response groups, the agency had a lot of ground to cover. Former groups such as the Federal Insurance Administration Program, the National Fire Prevention, and even Civil Defense from the Department of Defense and Civil Preparedness all merged together under the unified FEMA. For 27 years, the agency has endured continual restructuring of roles, reshuffling of management and changes to scopes of practice with each newly elected government.

The area of Civil Defense has proved to be FEMA’s downfall because it takes the agency’s focus away from natural disaster relief. This area was removed from FEMA’s jurisdiction in the 1990s. This resulted in positive representation in the media for FEMA because the agency was able to focus on natural disaster relief. There were constant pictures of aid workers providing relief to affected areas and large cheques were written out to communities in need. This period of good public relations lasted until the events of 9/11. In 2003, national security/terrorism was added once again to FEMA’s scope. The agency changed from a cabinet position within the government to one part of many federal organizations banded together under the newly formed Department of Homeland Security.

 In September 2003, Michael Brown, then FEMA’S director, worried about this shift of focus. He was concerned that FEMA’s motto of, “A nation prepared” would fundamentally sever FEMA from its core functions. He also felt that it would, “shatter agency morale and break longstanding and effective relationships and first responder stakeholders”. He went on to say that all of the reorganization would, “be an ineffective and uncoordinated response to a terrorist attack or a natural disaster”. Take a look at all of the FEMA directed criticism following Hurricane Katrina and this theory has proven true.

Over the years FEMA has endured mostly negative public opinion despite the brief period of positive relief in the 1990s. In 1985, FEMA was criticized for developing crude plans for guarded camps during the Los Angeles riots in order to detain African Americans. As well in the late 1990s, the agency deemed homosexuals as security risks and tried to compile a list of all of the gay and lesbian workers within the agency. Incidences like these, along with Hurricane Katrina, should remind all PR practitioners and students studying public relations of the differences between crisis prevention and crisis management. All organizations, especially those dedicated to disaster relief need to have a crisis management plan in place as part of their communications plan.

Is FEMA still a relevant government body? I think in its current form, no probably not. Fortunately, for me it’s not something that I have to decide. Over a year after Hurricane Katrina, the United States government still hasn’t decided if it is or not. Despite this one thing is clear; one more public relations embarrassment will cause whatever shred of respect and clout the agency has left to disappear.

  Want to know more? Check out the sites that helped me in my research: 

FEMA’S Official Website

www.fema.gov/about.index.shtm 

The Department of Homeland Security

http://www.dhs.gov/dhspublic/display?theme=14&content=4264&print=true 

FEMA – Wikipedia

http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title+2006Federal_Emergency_Management_Agency&pr 

FEMA after Katrina, by Patrick S. Roberts

http://proquest.umi.com/pgdweb?did=1130709681&sid=1&Fmt=4&clientld=20370&RQT=309&Vname=PQD  

 Submitted by Laura Kolstein

 Edited by Tara Wood

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