FEMA’s Far-Reaching Public Affairs Efforts Mitigate Flood Of Concerns

In the midst of the heart-wrenching news reports, sound bytes and images connected to the recent floods in the Midwest, an ongoing case study in effective public affairs is unfolding. A PR staff of about 45 at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Federal Insurance Administration (FIA is part of FEMA) have been overseeing one of the most wide-reaching public affairs campaigns in the agency's history. Their efforts have included everything from community outreach to extensive media relations. Harriette Kinberg, chief of the FIA's marketing division, said because FIA knew several months ago that the flood potential this spring was going to be high (based on weather service reports), it was able to plan a significant outreach program. "We created a TV spot, snow melt messages and radio announcements. But the floods in the Ohio River Valley surprised us, so our efforts have been fairly intense, including scheduling news conferences and relying on our flood insurance campaign," said Kinberg. This stepped-up public affairs campaign stems from when FEMA Director James Lee Witt challenged two years ago the FIA, which administers the National Flood Insurance Program, to increase the number of Americans protected by flood insurance. "In 1993, there were 2.5 million flood insurance policies in the U.S. and as of Jan. 31, 1997, there were over 3.6 million policy holders," added Kinberg. And government sources say that leap is directly linked to the FIA's public affairs programs to get information about flood insurance to U.S. residents. In the past several years, according to FEMA Public Affairs Officer Mark Stevens, FIA has used two primary routes: its Cover America ad campaign and mini conferences designed for the public, regional press, local and state officials and lenders in major flood plains to reach key audiences. What appears to have made FIA's public affairs approach work is that its efforts have spanned everything from simple grassroots tactics designed to dispel myths (like the commonly held belief that flood insurance is an automatic part of any homeowner's policy or that you can't be insured if you live in an area where floods are prolific) to offering insurers a commission if they write a policy on behalf of the government. From a public affairs perspective, the FIA model is one worth analyzing because of the way it has coupled industry concerns with public-based issues. In public affairs, it is easy for a program to be targeted toward professionals and thick with technical information while lacking a layman's component that makes sense of those semantics. To combat that, the FIA has held roundtable-type symposia in areas such as Salem, Ore., to address questions from those living in areas where policy coverage has been sparse. "What we realized was that, first and foremost, we had to get people information about this federal program," Kinberg said. "Prior to this, it seemed like flood insurance was the best-kept secret around and we wanted people to know that they need flood insurance because the government is limited in what it can do if you don't have insurance." EPA Uses Public Affairs for Superfund If the FIA's public affairs tactics don't convince you enough of just how far-reaching and important a public affairs program can be, then consider what the Environmental Protection Agency has done, since 1982, to get information to the public about the Superfund clean-up program for toxic waste dumps and other hazardous environmental sites. Its main public affairs team has been its community involvement coordinators, headquartered at its 10 regional offices, who do everything from going door to door to talk to residents during emergency removals or longterm clean-ups to hosting local meetings. From a PR perspective, face-to-face contact can often make or break a program. According to Lauren Mical, an EPA spokesperson, the EPA uses broadcast faxes, the World Wide Web and hotlinks and e-mail delivery of press releases to get information out about Superfund sites but it knows it can't rely on technology as a way to reach everyone. "We need to let people know what is happening and allow them to ask questions and have those questions answered," Mical said. "We've found that in the past, if we don't have some kind of active community involvement, local residents can become frustrated and become obstacles to us getting these sites cleaned up." But Mical also pointed out that having a link to the public benefits EPA staffers as well. From a PR vantage point, there's some obvious win-win reasoning here. "It's not only important for them [residents] to know what's happening but they can provide us with valuable information," Mical said. "For example, if they worked at a site, do they remember where and how often hazardous materials were used at the plant?" Or if there was a day when something seemed awry. The teams also help set up community advisory groups to bring together various segments of the community, including those who could become eventual sources about the technical assistance and grants the EPA makes available to those in Superfund areas. And they also make sure that a public docket, with up-to-date materials that neighbors can review, is housed at a community site such as a library. Mical said that the EPA's most recent count indicates there are 1,259 sites on the Superfund list. Up to about 12 community involvement coordinators are based at each regional site. (FEMA, Mark Stevens, 202/646-4600; Harriette Kinberg, 202/646-3425; EPA, Lauren Mical, 202/260-2090)

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