Friday, September 02, 2005

It's a nightmare alright

One of my former students, Charles Harrington, emailed me some interesting comments and questions about the handling of the New Orleans hurricane disaster...and the resulting PR disaster for some government officials. Here's what he had to say:
I'm e-mailing you because I am trying to make sense of the Katrina story from a PR standpoint, and you were the #1 professor as far as finding the PR side of current events. (Gee, thanks!)

For me, the entire thing seems to be the Gov't's worst PR nightmare, with people in key places saying EXACTLY THE WRONG THINGS. But maybe I'm missing something here. Things I found particularly surprising were:

The head of Federal Emergency Management Agency saying people who didn't get out are partially responsible for their own problems:
"Unfortunately, that's going to be attributable a lot to people who did not heed the advance warnings," Brown told CNN.
"I don't make judgments about why people chose not to leave but, you know, there was a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans."
Now...I can't imagine that he doesn't know that most of the people who are still in the city were the poor, transportationless, or sick/infirm/hospitalized. What is he thinking?
(Good question! I wondered the same thing myself. FEMA seems clueless. I wouldn't be surprised to find out that Brown really didn't know that most of those who stayed did so because they had no way means/money/place to go. Partly, it's because most channels of communication were shut down by the storm, but it also looks like he was simply out of touch. I mean, why couldn't he watch CNN or go online and read like the rest of us?)
Also, when the Governor spoke about troops entering the city to deal with looters, she said:
"They have M-16s and they're locked and loaded," Gov. Kathleen Blanco said of 300 National Guard troops who landed in New Orleans fresh from duty in Iraq. "These troops know how to shoot and kill, and they are more than willing to do so, and I expect they will."'s craziness over there. I understand that...and I think she's doing the right thing. But she's also saying she expects the military to come in and kill a lot of her constituents. At least that's how I read it.... Would a statement about military personnel bringing peace and order have been too mild?
I'd say the "locked and loaded" rhetoric is over the top. Personally, I'd have thought it sufficient for the governor to say she's bringing in the National Guard to restore order and they'll use whatever force is necessary to do that.
I also saw a report where a staff member for the attorney general claimed that looters were part of the city's "existing criminal element" who were "taking advantage of the storm." Huh? Is she kidding? Are people stealing food and clothes taking advantage of a situation?

I am reminded of that assignment you gave us about the rise of STDs in colleges where the health dept. person (essentially) calls the students sluts. It seems like a lot of people (under stress) are saying the most astonishing things about people who are A) citizens, B) in a serious crisis, and C) not getting the help we would probably expect the gov't. to provide. (Note: in the assignment, 100W students had to write a news story and a news release, and decide whether or not to use some colorful quotes, one of which was clearly inappropriate for a news release...once you thought about it.)

Am I being too harsh? Also, what would you recommend the officials do in this situation? I'd love to hear what you think.
And I'd love to hear what you think! Is this turning into a public relations disaster as well as a natural disaster?

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