Time magazine has a semi-tongue in cheek piece suggesting that the reason FEMA held a fake news conference was because, well, that’s the way they’ve been trained – a reference to TOPOFF and other emergency simulations in which public relations consultants play the role of reporters during mock news conferences.

The article wasn’t entirely tongue in cheek, though; the author, Amanda Ripley, seems miffed that the real media aren’t invited to report on DHS’s training simulations. Maybe if legitimate reporters were invited, she suggests, more hard-nosed questions would be asked and government officials would learn how to deal more effectively with the media.

She has a point … kind of. Not that FEMA’s news conference was a product of TOPOFF training. Crash dummies don’t cause pile-ups on the freeway, and good media training doesn’t cause public affairs professionals to pull a stunt like the one FEMA did.

However, Ripley is right when she says that paid public relations consultants aren’t likely to give government officials the kind of workout they really need during a crisis situation. After all, these consultants want to keep their clients happy, so they will hesitate to offend too deeply. (Reporters don’t have such reservations, bless ‘em.)

Consultants can offer helpful advice, but at the end of the day, they are still just role-playing. They lack the sense of urgency – even entitlement – that drives real reporters. They won’t aggressively demand access to individuals who are too busy trying to save lives to stop for multiple interviews. They won’t quote critics claiming that DHS is doing everything wrong and ask, straight-faced, whether this is true (Headline: Chertoff Denies All Is Lost!). They won’t air an eight-second clip taken out of context from a ten-minute interview, and they won’t ask for information that hasn’t even been compiled and then cuss at you for not being more responsive.

Yes, working with the media can be – will be – stressful during an emergency situation, but as the FEMA breakdown showed, they will be part of any real crisis situation, like it or not. And the simulation exercises offer a rare opportunity for public affairs officers to deal with the unpredictable demands of the media in a high-stress environment (Can the Coast Guard airlift our cameraman into the hurricane so we can get some good b-roll?) … with relatively low risk.

Of course there’s plenty of risk in inviting the media to what are meant to be training exercises – primarily the risk of turning the exercises into something they aren’t meant to be. The last thing DHS needs is Brian Ross smuggling fake radioactive materials into a fake hospital during a fake emergency and then airing a fake gotcha story on real televisions. (But come on, doesn’t he do that already?)

On the other hand, it doesn’t genuinely help agency heads and public affairs staff to address a gaggle of well-heeled “reporters” who ask polite and leading questions during a crisis training exercise. That’s like training a gladiator with stuffed animals and then sending him into the coliseum.

Weighing the risks versus the benefits, DHS should consider inviting the real media to cover the “fake” emergencies. Why?

  • *It will give less seasoned public affairs staff and agency spokesmen valuable training opportunities to work in a high-stress environment, develop relationships with the key reporters who cover the Department, and hone their crisis communications skills
  • *The training will be far more valuable than any mock news conference could ever be
  • *It will allow DHS to promote a message that it is aggressively planning for the next emergency
  • *Any gaffes that are made can be dismissed as part of the training process
  • *Consultants and more seasoned in-house public affairs staff can still have a training role — by attending and observing media interactions with staff and offering pre – and post-event counsel and advice

The thought of inviting the media into such training environments may be unnerving, but look at the bright side: it couldn’t get any worse than what happened last week.

Chris Battle founded Security Debrief as a forum for the homeland security community to discuss pressing issues and current debates in national security, counter-terrorism and law enforcement. After a long fight against kidney cancer, Chris passed in August 2013. Read More