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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 6/23/08

Floods: Army Corps Says PR Turns Babblers into Spokespersons

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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."

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."

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 and South Florida. Her articles have appeared in The Society of Professional Journalists' Online Quill Magazine, the Huffington (more...)

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