FEMA Chief’s Future May Depend on Public Perception

Communicators know there’s never a good time for a PR crisis. But when you represent a federal agency created to deal with crises, it’s especially bad optics to deal with a PR crisis and a crisis brought about by an act of nature at the same time.

That’s what the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is dealing with at the moment. In addition to coordinating executive branch response to the flooding in the Carolinas brought about by Hurricane Florence, FEMA chief Brock Long faces a possible criminal probe related to his use of government vehicles for what some claim is personal travel to and from Washington, D.C.

The Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General probe of Long’s use of government vehicles was recently referred to U.S. attorneys for prosecution, the Wall St. Journal reported. The move heightened calls for the administrator to resign, sources told the Washington Post.

President Trump reportedly likes the job Long has done at FEMA. Long, in turn, has been a loyal supporter of the president.

Yesterday, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman Trey Gowdy of South Carolina sent Long a letter demanding specifics about his use of government vehicles to commute home to N. Carolina.

Questions Abound

This situation is fraught with difficult choices. For example, is it proper to distract Long and his agency as they battle the effects of Mother Nature in the Carolinas? If the answer is no, Gowdy's move was misguided and could hurt him at the polls. As of this moment, 33 people have died as a result of Florence, with 26 of them in N. Carolina, according to the Associated Press. The young and the elderly seem most vulnerable.

In addition, with large tracts of the Carolinas underwater, is it a good idea to remove the top FEMA official, particularly since the agency lacks a deputy administrator?

For his part, Long says he’s concentrating fully on Florence, not the criminal investigation.

On the other hand, parts of the case against Long look bad. Critics point to his use of government vehicles to drive hundreds of miles to spend three-day weekends with his family. There’s also evidence of FEMA aides on Long's staff staying in hotels during those weekends at taxpayer expense.

The counterargument, FEMA sources told the Post, is that Long must be reachable 24/7, and government vehicles provide that capability. This is the thrust of Long's argument. The criminal case against Long, these sources say, will be determined by how rules about the use of government property are interpreted. They insist he's not done anything wrong intentionally.

Late yesterday, rank-and-file FEMA staff rallied around Long, posting messages supporting the administrator on social media. “He’s definitely won my members over,” Bloomberg quoted Steve Reaves, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 4060, which represents about 5,000 FEMA workers, as saying.

A Tainted Brand

Long's fate may have little to do with the facts of his case. Unfortunately, the brand of government administrators is tainted. This emanates from former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, who was forced to resign in part because of his use of private jets. Also contributing to a deteriorated brand is former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt, whose departure also was partly due to his alleged penchant for first-class air travel for himself and bodyguards.

A source quoted in the Washington Post story says that Long's alleged violations don’t come close to those of Pruitt or Price in monetary terms. As communicators know, though, public perception sometimes is far more important than facts. A key question for the White House will be whether or not the odor around the FEMA chief's travel lingers enough in the public's mind that he should be asked to resign.

Seth Arenstein is editor of PR News.  Follow him: @skarenstein