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Katrina and the White House, federal government, and FEMA brands

Two years after Katrina, the FEMA brand is still tainted (as is the brand of the White House and the entire federal government) by the relief efforts that took place after the hurricane. The question is, why? If you look at the White House factsheet ( on Hurricane Katrina relief efforts, you see that the government has spent many billions of dollars to assist hurricane victims and strengthen infrastructure against floods, and President Bush and his wife personally visited the area, reinforcing their commitment to help in the recovery.

Yet as recently as yesterday (8/29), on the Oprah Winfrey show, CNN's Anderson Cooper talked about the inadequacy of government efforts to help people in the area, and a story was told of a family suffering continual illness as a result of living in a FEMA trailer.

Clearly there is a disconnect between the efforts being made by the federal government and the experiences and perceptions of the affected citizens of the area. I am not an expert on the situation in New Orleans, but Cooper gave a clue as to what one of the key problems might be: communication by the government to affected individuals. People don't understand where to go for help, said Cooper; the government has left people to figure it out on their own. I didn't watch the whole show (probably like many people, I got just a few bits and pieces), but my impression is that a better communication plan by the government, and FEMA in particular, might help enormously in routing people to the services they need, and in turn improve impressions of the public regarding what the government is doing to help.

This is a good example of how simply throwing money at a problem does not necessarily help. Because separately from relief funding, what is called for is a coordinated brand campaign demonstrating what has been done, what the remaining needs are, and what the plan is for closing the gap. (Yes, that will cost money too.) It's not just a communication plan, but a brand communication plan, because it affects the entire image of the White House, the federal government, and FEMA. Not only that, but there should be some sort of listening mechanism, if there isn't one already, instituted by the government to pay heed to what affected citizens have to say about their experiences obtaining relief. At a minimum, every call and email should be acknowledged; optimally, incoming cases would be managed from beginning to end to make sure that every last citizen is being taken care of.

Brand is a promise made and delivered. More can be done to communicate to citizens how the promises associated with Katrina are being handled effectively—and what is being done to improve things where they're not.

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