Friday, September 09, 2005
One of the disturbing communications developments to arise in the wake of Hurricane Katrina is the absence of enough government public affairs professionals on the ground in New Orleans and other affected areas. The result: Police officers and National Guard soldiers are implementing FEMA's communications directives at gunpoint, and the agency has asked news organizations not to broadcast images in which dead bodies appear, which would include much of the city at this point. FEMA only yesterday asked other federal agencies to contribute public affairs personnel to the hurricane recovery effort -- a step that historically would have been organized in advance of an anticipated natural disaster, or immediately after it. Communicators in a flood or hurricane zone serve several important functions, keeping lines of information open, especially to the news media; handling access, so others can do the more important recovery work; ensuring that facts are vetted before they are released; and much more. Career federal public affairs personnel usually have extensive experience in handling crisis communications in such situations -- at EPA, we worked with pros who'd handled everything from the Mississippi floods to Chernobyl. We say if it's a public affair, let's let the professionals in public affairs do their jobs -- and in a nation with a free press, we don't need to do this with guns. The topic is the subject of news coverage in today's Washington Post and an editorial in the New York Times, and the Associated Press today reports on just how difficult conditions are for basic reporting in New Orleans, guns aside.