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Risky Business

How the career path of a public relations professional took an unexpected turn

FEMA office. Source:

John Pat Philbin stopped for a moment and took a breath before answering the question. He seemed surprised that the audience showed no mercy in cutting straight to the controversy. Can you describe what happened on October 23, 2007? the University of Maryland student asked. One would hope 24 years of experience wouldnt be outshined by a single incident. But Philbins testimony indicates that one mistake is all it takes for the media to bring a career crashing down.

Philbins background in public relations Philbins impressive resume makes rookie mistakes seem unlikely. His academic achievements include a Doctorate in Communication from the University of Maryland and a Masters of Science in Public Relations from Syracuse University. Philbin served more than 21 years in the U.S. Coast Guard. There he developed an expertise for crisis communication. He dealt with a number of high-profile events including the loss of the space shuttle Challenger, oil and natural disasters in the Gulf of Mexico, the loss of TWA Flight 800 and Alaska Air, and the loss of JFK, Jr.s plane off of Marthas Vineyard. In 2004 Philbin retired from the U.S. Coast Guard as Chief of Public Affairs. Philbin then worked as the Technical Director for Anteon Corporation for just over a year before joining the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as the Director of External Affairs. Just three days before being promoted to Director of Public Affairs for the Director of National Intelligence, an event at FEMA led Philbins career down an unexpected path. Press conference controversy On October 23, 2007, it was business as usual when FEMA staff scheduled a press conference to address the wildfires taking place in Southern California.
John Pat Philbin. Photo Credit:

The California wildfires were out of control. There was considerable pressure from above to get on camera and provide an update to what was going on, explained Philbin during a 2008 interview with PRSA. The problem began when FEMA staff notified the media less than an hour before the conference was scheduled to begin. No media were able to make it to FEMA in time. But a member of Philbins staff decided that the show would go on anyway. The press conference took place without media in attendance, and the phone lines were closed off so that media could not actively participate. The only people directing questions to the FEMA-employed speaker
FEMA Press Conference on October 23, 2007. Photo credit: FEMA. Illustrated by the Washington Post

were other FEMA employees.

Philbin claims he was unaware that the conference was intentionally staged. He realized while sitting in the press conference that it was only his colleagues who were asking questions, but he didnt stop the press conference under the belief that the phone lines were open for media to ask questions. When press caught wind of this faked conference a day later, Philbin took full responsibility and directed his staff to be as transparent as possible.

I come from a culture in the Coast Guard where bad news doesnt get better with age, you let it all hang out. You tell it all, you tell it now, you tell the truth and that was the attitude I brought with me to FEMA, said Philbin. Within a matter of hours, Philbin was shocked to find his name headlining across media platforms.

I dont think I understood the personal risk of going into an organization that has a huge target on its back
position, Philbin was left unemployed.

I dont think I understood the personal risk of going into an organization that has a huge target on its back, he said. On October 29, 2007, the Director of National Intelligence informed Philbin that he was no longer offered the position of Director of Public Affairs. Having already retired from FEMA in order to assume this new

The personal consequences have been pretty devastating, admits Philbin. Reflecting: the role of the media While Philbin was not in on the decision to go forward with the press conference without media interaction, it was he who took the fall. He does not regret his decision to take responsibility for the event because he feels it was his obligation as a leader, but he believes that the media has not effectively achieved due diligence. There is a public record that in my opinion is wrong, said Philbin. Social media and innovations in technology have created a demand for on-the-spot news coverage, which Philbin believes may in turn be sacrificing the validity and depth of information.

How to avoid disaster in public relations

Have a code of ethics- Be sure you and your company have a code of ethics that is enforced on all levels. Philbins experience demonstrates that in the public relations industry, ethical integrity is everything.

Unfortunately, media today is more concerned with speed than anything else. The old model of using the mass media to get information to those people that are most important isnt really effective anymore, because you cant be confident that they will verify the information [in their reporting]- they are going to run with it, said Philbin. Rebuilding Philbin is now President and Chief Executive Officer of a crisis public relations firm, Crisis1, in Reston, VA. His portfolio of clients includes the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Marine Corps, the New York Department of Health and the Department of Defense. Were small, but were growing, said Philbin in a recent interview at the University of Maryland. Philbin has decided to continue in the field of public relations, but his final words to those entering the industry: good luck to you.

Respond Instinctively- The best thing that Philbin could have done was intervene in the faked press conference the second that he recognized something was off. The key to crisis communication is muscle memory, Philbin said.
Be loyal and be honestPhilins 21 years of loyalty to the U.S. Coast Guard proved beneficial after the 2007 FEMA incident. They are now clients of his crisis management company, Crisis1. He attributes his transparent approach to dealing with the media to the Coast Guard. While it did not work to his advantage at FEMA, Philbin still believes full and immediate disclosure is fundamental to crisis communication.