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Floods: Army Corps Says PR Turns Babblers into Spokespersons

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Sandy Rosenthal of levees.org at "little wet spot"-Sunday, June 22

Kevin Gosztola of OEN News contributed extensively to this report

A calculated form of disinformation played out in mainstream newspapers, radio networks, and internet sites this weekend as spin doctors acted as apologists for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). This planned distraction was perpetuated while massive levee failures continued up and down the great Mississippi River Basin. God, Nature, and rice farmers in the Midwest were blamed for the catastrophe with little or no challenge to what has turned out to be a behemoth public relations campaign bought and paid for by the U.S. taxpayer. Government agencies are forbidden by law to lobby the government, but there is no restriction on hiring public relations firms.

USACE has known for some time that the levee systems in America need restructuring. It appears that, rather than improving the levee system to prevent worse case scenarios from happening, or sounding an alarm, the USACE has chosen to hire public relations firms to help them with crisis communications.

"How these [public relations] professionals can transform masters of techno-babble into credible spokespersons so quickly and smoothly is an amazing thing to behold," says Kevin Quinn, Chief Public Affairs Office, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-Omaha District.

Corps press officer Quinn was offering a testimonial for S&C Advertising & Public Relations. His testimonial is freely available in the Internet and describes how S&C Advertising teaches the Army Corps' so-called "masters of techno babble" how to handle hardball questions. One segment of the course involves a mock television "ambush interview" in which clients such as the Corps are taught "three key messages that the interviewee can always fall back on in touchy situations." Another term for this type of spin "messaging" might be "red herrings."

Amazing Failures to Behold

Some of S&C's other clients include the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the state transportation departments in California, Connecticut and Minnesota. Massive failures of federal infrastructure such as the Minnesota I-35 bridge collapse in August 2007 and the continuing failures of the levee system up and down the Mississippi River drainage basin are certainly "touchy situations."

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The USACE message was delivered flawlessly with no challenge.

The Crystal Ball Defense

On June 16, CNN conducted an interview with Lt. General Robert Van Antwerp, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "For a lot of these levees, you could not prevent this," Van Antwerp said.

On the same day on FOX News, USACE spokesman Ronald F. Fournier offered the "crystal ball defense," which sounded a lot like Van Antwerp's explanation. "There is no way to predict whether these levees will break. That's a crystal ball that nobody has," Fournier said.

"The operation of that reservoir was going just as planned and just as expected. We were preventing flooding but as you know and I know, that rain came and never stopped."
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Brigadier Gen. Michael J. Walsh, commander of the Mississippi River Commission, a commission that prides itself on "listening, inspecting, partnering, and engineering since 1879", went on NBC to practice his crisis communications skills:

MEREDITH VIEIRA, NBC co-host: We just heard about another levee this morning failing, this one in Meyer, Illinois. Your agency has identified 26 levees that are either--they've either failed already or they are at risk of doing so. Why? Why is this happening?

Brig. Gen. WALSH: Well, certainly those levees were designed for a--for a storm, not the size that has hit so far. Certainly in the Cedar Rapids area, that was--we're looking at probably a 500-year storm, and lower down into the Mississippi, perhaps a 50-year storm or a little bit--little bit larger than that.

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Georgianne Nienaber is an investigative environmental and political writer. She lives in rural northern Minnesota, New Orleans and South Florida. Her articles have appeared in The Society of Professional Journalists' Online Quill (more...)

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I must make certain that OEN's Kevin Gosztola ... by Georgianne Nienaber on Monday, Jun 23, 2008 at 2:54:00 PM
It will take more than PR to get past this obfusca... by Margaret Bassett on Monday, Jun 23, 2008 at 5:17:15 PM
Are you kidding? They are the ones spinning. Glad ... by Georgianne Nienaber on Monday, Jun 23, 2008 at 5:19:59 PM
As a native New Orleanian, naturally I love this c... by David Spence on Monday, Jun 23, 2008 at 6:30:08 PM
Thank you for the important correction. Industrial... by Georgianne Nienaber on Monday, Jun 23, 2008 at 7:48:28 PM
Yean, considering that the Industrial Canal is whe... by Bruce Biles on Tuesday, Jun 24, 2008 at 12:14:10 PM
Industrial Canal=Navigationnot drainage.That is wh... by Bruce Biles on Tuesday, Jun 24, 2008 at 7:44:50 PM
Neccesity may be the "Mother of Invention&quo... by Bruce Biles on Tuesday, Jun 24, 2008 at 12:03:06 PM
I don't think I have ever felt such a sense of... by Jan Baumgartner on Monday, Jun 23, 2008 at 6:53:32 PM
Would have been nice if NPR would have disclosed t... by Kathlyn Stone on Monday, Jun 23, 2008 at 8:35:04 PM
Having had experience with NPR through a campaign,... by Georgianne Nienaber on Tuesday, Jun 24, 2008 at 10:57:10 AM
We are in deep trouble with this kind of game... by Mac McKinney on Monday, Jun 23, 2008 at 10:40:11 PM
has probably done more boondoggling on behalf of p... by Jim Freeman on Tuesday, Jun 24, 2008 at 9:40:49 AM
Mz Nienaber,thank you for your attempt to cast som... by Bruce Biles on Tuesday, Jun 24, 2008 at 11:42:59 AM
BruceIn the “Olden days” of print jour... by Georgianne Nienaber on Tuesday, Jun 24, 2008 at 12:14:38 PM
Boswoth is quoted extensively in our article.... by Georgianne Nienaber on Tuesday, Jun 24, 2008 at 1:40:54 PM
Georgianne, I have read dozens of your articles, n... by Jan Baumgartner on Tuesday, Jun 24, 2008 at 3:02:49 PM
Mz Bumgartner, no one is speaking here of silencin... by Bruce Biles on Tuesday, Jun 24, 2008 at 5:11:06 PM
I do apologize for mispelling your name, Mz Baumga... by Bruce Biles on Tuesday, Jun 24, 2008 at 5:18:36 PM
They out right contradicted themselves in their pr... by Bruce Biles on Tuesday, Jun 24, 2008 at 3:54:05 PM
First let me congratulate you on this amazing repo... by Deborah Emin on Tuesday, Jun 24, 2008 at 12:49:19 PM