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FEMA Responds to Criticism Over Staged News Conference

Responding to criticism over a staged news conference about the Southern California wildfires, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency said today changes will be made in the way the agency

Responding to criticism over a staged news conference about the Southern California wildfires, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency said today changes will be made in the way the agency works with the media.

"Transparency and credibility have been and will be tenets of everything we do," FEMA Administrator David Paulison said. "Today, we will begin making reforms in the Office of External Affairs to restore our integrity and to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again."

The agency came under fire from media outlets and even the White House for a news conference last Tuesday. Reporters were unable to attend the hastily arranged event focusing on the Southern California wildfires, so FEMA employees in the room asked the questions, posing as reporters.

"It was an abuse of the public trust, plain and simple," said Clint Brewer, national president of the Society of Professional Journalists. "FEMA likely had no actual, real reporters at their press conference because of poor planning and a mere 15 minutes notice. The government should be honest with the American people about such things. What would the government have to say if reporters began impersonating federal employees?"

John "Pat" Philbin was the head of FEMA's Office of External Affairs at the time, but he left the agency on Friday, planning to become head of public affairs for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. But that job offer was withdrawn, however, because of Philbin's involvement in the phony news event, during which real reporters were able to listen by telephone but could not ask questions.

Paulison -- who was not involved in the news conference -- said Russ Knocke, FEMA's deputy assistant secretary for public affairs, will become the acting director of the Office of External Affairs, replacing Philbin.

"We are also changing some procedures for how we work with the media to ensure more professional and transparent interaction," Paulison said. "These changes include providing reasonable notice for press events, permitting reporters who participate in press events telephonically to ask questions and transcribing press events when possible for public release.

"Finally, under no circumstances will anyone other than media be allowed to ask questions at press events."

Philbin has denied trying to be deceptive, saying he set up the teleconference and thought reporters calling in would have the ability to ask questions. He said in media reports that he did not know the FEMA staffers in the room would start asking questions.

The Public Relations Society of America issued a statement today suggesting that FEMA officials review the organization's code of ethics to use as a guide "to review the current incident, prevent future errors in judgment and restore public confidence."

"PRSA is also volunteering the assistance of PRSA leaders in establishing new FEMA standards," the group's statement read.

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