• Dusty Weis

Lead Balloon Ep. 25 - FEMA Rep Has Near-Death Experience After Hurricane Ike


A FEMA public affairs unit puts itself in harm's way to try and repair the agency's tarnished image, and the experience leaves a lasting impact on both of our guests--Molly McPherson and Mike Moore.


Established by President Jimmy Carter in the late 70’s, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has responded to every major American disaster over the last 40 years.

But for all its many successes, FEMA is also an agency that has struggled with its image in the public eye. Its high-profile failures have dominated the conversation in the media and among the public.


So when Molly McPherson went to work for FEMA in 2007 as a public affairs specialist, she pitched a bold new approach the put the agency front and center in telling its own story. But it would also put her and her team in the path of danger.


And one sweltering day in Houston, in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike, that danger caught up to her, changing her career path and her life forever.


In this episode, Molly details the story of her close call, and her colleague Mike Moore shares his own personal struggle with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of the time he spent in the trenches of FEMA's disaster recovery efforts.



Transcript


Dusty Weis:

When it comes to straight up literal disasters, there's no authority on the planet that can quite rival FEMA.


Archive News Footage:

The Federal Emergency Management Agency.


Dusty Weis:

Established by President Jimmy Carter in the late 70s, this federal agency with a 29 billion dollar annual budget has responded to every major American disaster over the last 40 years. Not just floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes, but the Oklahoma City bombing. The space shuttle Columbia disaster, and even, of course, 9/11.


Archive News Footage:

This California FEMA team headed into the lower level shopping mall that once spread out under the World Trade Center site.


Dusty Weis:

But for all it's done to help Americans in need, FEMA is also an agency that has struggled with its image in the public eye. Its high profile failures have dominated the conversation in the media and the public.


Archive News Footage:

Hurricane Katrina. Lack of preparedness. Trapped in her attic for two days. We don't have transportation. Toxic trailers. I didn't think it would come to this. The shelter at the Superdome. Put the pumps on!


President George W. Bush:

Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job.


Dusty Weis:

So when Molly McPherson went to work for FEMA in 2007 as a public affairs specialist, she pitched a bold new approach for putting the agency front and center in telling its own story. It would also put her front and center in the path of danger. When that danger finally caught up to her-


Molly McPherson:

My leg could be crushed under this. What if I lose my leg? What if I lose my life? All of that slowly goes through your head.


Dusty Weis:

It would change her life and her career forever. I'm Dusty Weis for Podcamp Media. This is Lead Balloon. A podcast about PR, marketing and branding disasters and the well meaning communications professionals who lived them.


Dusty Weis:

Thanks for tuning in. The story of Molly McPherson's time at FEMA is an eye opening learning experience for folks like us. But it's made all the more pertinent that even when they're not hurt on the job like Molly was, spending all that time in disaster zones leaves a mark on anyone. Even if that mark isn't usually visible. So we're going to talk with Molly's former public affairs colleague Mike Moore about his experience with PTSD as well.


Dusty Weis:

If these stories resonate with you, do me a favor and pull up Lead Balloon on your favorite podcast app and leave us a review to tell us your thoughts. You can also follow Podcamp Media on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. So Molly McPherson is a Boston based reputation management consultant. A social media strategist to podcast host, and an author. She got her start in television back in the 90s. Straddling the divide between both the news and sales end of things. Then pivoted into public relations when she took a role as coms director for the Cruise Lines International Association.


Dusty Weis:

But it was in 2007 that she went to work for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA. Looking back, she says it was clear that her life had been building to that point for a long time.


Molly McPherson:

When I was growing up in Minnesota, there was an event that happened in my childhood. It left an indelible mark with me, why I needed to work in disaster response. I was leaning towards the media. The year was 1986. There was a pipeline that exploded in the suburbs of the twin cities. I lived in a suburb of St. Paul. I lived around this lake, and two of our neighbors, they were killed in this explosion.


Molly McPherson:

So an event back then, if we're talking 1986, if you remember when there was a crisis or an event, that news story went on for days and days and days. I just remember following that on the news. I said, I know what I want to work in. But it was either a mix of the press or managing disasters. I tell my kids this, the fact that I'm doing this decades later, the one thing that I've done right in my career is I found something that I love. It is absolutely permeated in my cell structure that I love the work.


Molly McPherson:

Whether it's press relations, public relations, public affairs, disaster management. If I can help someone, and by giving them good communication advice, then I feel like I've done a job well done.


Dusty Weis:

Yeah, certainly. Well, and what I like about it too is that you dabbled. You knew sort of where you wanted to be but there wasn't yet a job title that existed that encompassed everything that you wanted to do, so you just went out and you tried things and just dialed it in a little more and a little more.


Dusty Weis:

One of those steps that you took of course was the time that you spent at FEMA. In 2007 you took the job, the FEMA organization of course a little bit of a turmoil going on in the mid 2000s when you went to work there. This is about two years after Hurricane Katrina made landfall over New Orleans. Certainly a black swan type of event. But also one where FEMA and the George W. Bush administration made some pretty well recognized missteps in their response to that disaster. What was the environment like at FEMA when you went to work there?


Molly McPherson:

The environment at FEMA was bruised, right? Just in the years after Katrina, I think people were in shock. Because inside when you work for an organization, an agency like FEMA, particularly an agency like FEMA, as a public affairs officer for many of the workers there, we get front facing validation of our work. We're out in the field. We are handing out money to people to get them back on their feet. We are there after a wildfire. After a storm. After a hurricane. We're helping people. People will say to us, "Thank god for FEMA. Thank god that you're here." A lot of other agencies don't get that type of feedback. But then you add Katrina to the mix. That reputation disaster within a disaster that happened there.


Archive News Footage:

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, FEMA was widely blamed for a lack of preparedness and inadequate response. FEMA was slow to deliver food and supplies and housed displaced residents in toxic trailers.


Molly McPherson:

They felt the scorn, not only from just the public, but also the press. Certainly inside the beltway. To put it simply, we were a joke of an agency. And literally a joke. I mean, we were a Saturday Night Live skit. So when I came into that agency, it was bruised. Okay? But also there wasn't a feeling as if they were taking the blame for everything. Because in truth, Dusty, even though FEMA and the "Heck of a job Brownie" idea never left them, right? We took all the heat from it, but there were so many mistakes to go around. We were just the agency that was in the spotlight.


Dusty Weis:

So when Molly started her job at FEMA, she was eager to help the agency turn the tide of bad press, and bring light to the important work that helps thousands of Americans each year. Instead within a couple of weeks of her onboarding, she had to watch as FEMA's floundering leadership committed yet another major PR spectacle. When they called a press conference to discuss wildfires in California.


Molly McPherson:

It's probably the worst moment in my career that I was a part of. Yet it was so pivotal for me. For the people who don't remember, back in in 2007, the FEMA administrator at the time, he was Harvey Johnson. He was a former Coast Guard admiral. He was the administrator and we were managing the California wildfires. I'd just started. So I was getting acclimated to what FEMA was.


Molly McPherson:

But I certainly knew about ethics and reporting, and ethics in public affairs and public relations. They wanted to get information about the wildfires. However, they didn't want to deal with a pesky little problem of inviting the press to come into the briefing room. It was someone's idea to create a press conference where we would transmit the information out one way, where the press could hear the statement, but the questions were being asked from within the room by all FEMA employees. And I was one of the employees in that room.


Dusty Weis:

So they essentially sent out a notice of a press conference and said, "It starts in 15 minutes. If you can't make it across town to be in the room with us here," and nobody could make it across town in 15 minutes, it's DC. "We've got a number, you can dial in and listen as we have the press conference and other people ask the questions." What was not disclosed there was the fact that these other people, these nameless voices on the other end of a conference call were FEMA employees. You were invited to sit in on this. What do you remember when you walked into that room?


Molly McPherson:

I went down to the briefing room and I thought, "Great, I get to go to my first briefing. This will be interesting." I was brand new. So I have to put that into context. Going to the briefing room and as they were rolling everything out and they started the conference, and there wasn't really a go to person for me to check, "What's happening here? Is this normal procedure?"


Molly McPherson:

I think if I had been there for a few years, it would've been different. But I was in a vacuum. I had no idea what the policy and the procedures were. But as the questions were being asked by my colleagues, I knew it was wrong. I said, "Maybe in Washington DC they do things different when it comes to the press, but I don't think so, since we are at the seat of the country right now." But I was in shock. I wanted to stand up and say something. I did lean over and say to a colleague, "What is happening here? Why is this happening?" She was on her Blackberry at the time, so she wasn't paying attention that much. One of my biggest career regrets is that I didn't stand up and say something. Okay? Because I didn't know any better. But I knew it was wrong.


Molly McPherson:

It seemed wrong that you couldn't hear the press. After that event before it was leaked, I went up to one of the people who I worked for at the time and had said something. What happened there? That didn't seem right. This person just pooh poohed it and like, "Oh no, no, no. This is what we always do there." I regret it to this day. I regret it. What they wanted to do, they just wanted a shortcut. It was a media statement. It was just a briefing. There wasn't any big news. There wasn't anything special. It's one of those cases where you didn't even have to cover it up, but they chose to. Somebody chose to do it, and of course it came back and it fed right into the ether of, "Hey, you can't trust FEMA." It got leaked from the inside, and it was in the Washington Post the next day.


Dusty Weis:

Washington Post runs the story, and it includes a picture with everybody sitting around in that briefing room, including you. Fortunately for you, you were the only person who was so new that nobody knew what your name was and you weren't in the caption.


Molly McPherson:

I am not google-able on that article at all, which is fabulous right? Someone actually, a very high up military official said to me, "I don't know what you were able to pull there, but you didn't even get your name in there." I'm like, "Pull? It's because I knew that the leaker ..." They took a photo, and they didn't know who I was because I literally had just started and they didn't put the name there. That's why I can know the timeline of who leaked it and when. I know where it came from and who did it. Now of course they know who I am-


Dusty Weis:

You do know who leaked it!


Molly McPherson:

Oh yeah. I have a very strong suspicion. Someone let me know. Because I just found it utterly fascinating that this photo came out and that it was inside. It was someone thinking like me, "This is wrong. We shouldn't do it." They deserved what they got.


Dusty Weis:

What they got, among other things was flayed in the press and skewered on Saturday Night Live. By none other than the inimitable Amy Poehler.


Amy Poehler:

Right here, tonight's top stories. Pat Philbin, the man who staged a fake FEMA news conference on the California Wildfires last week has lost his promotion because of the event. Which begs the question, what does it take to actually get fired from FEMA?


Dusty Weis:

Though Molly discussed her concerns about the incident with management, it was clear that she would be facing a good deal of institutional inertia any time she tried to rock the boat. Still, what the agency obviously needed was some unconventional thinking. An approach to public relations that was still five years ahead of its time.


Molly McPherson:

Truly, I couldn't get any good press. Reporters were laughing at me on the phone. They're like, "You've got to be kidding. Don't even try." That makes a job, when you're a PIO, it makes it pretty difficult to do your job if you know you can't get press. Yet the people I was talking to on the phone that were helping in individual assistance, they kept telling me how great we were. So I just connected the dots and I said, "We need to get these people out into the public." Well how do we do it?


Molly McPherson:

There weren't a lot of people who were following social media. I was at the age, I was gen Xer. I was familiar with the technology, but not a lot of other people were. I was familiar with social media and how it was going to be used. That's when I took the idea and I brought it to the person, Marty [inaudible 00:12:56] who was the one who testified about Katrina. So he was in the spotlight and he was our truth teller. I gave him the idea and he's the one who I credit with giving me the go ahead to be able to go into the field, become a backpack journalist before the term even existed, and to go out and tell our story. That's what I did.


Dusty Weis:

I've got to say, I was just starting my career in news right around then, 2007, 2008. I encountered a lot of permissiveness from some of the editors and assignment people that I worked for as well. A lot of it just had to do with the fact that I was in my 20s and they're like, "Oh yeah, you know about this stuff. Yeah, sure you want to put a video up on the website? I'm sure you know how to do that. Just go ahead and do it." I was almost blown away by how easy it was for me to pitch these crazy ideas. They're like, "Oh yeah, you're a millennial, absolutely. Have at it." Is that why they gave you the green light?


Molly McPherson:

Yeah, just like nowadays, when all these digital specialists are giving all the work of "You do social, you do video." Because the gen Xers, the baby boomers, they don't necessarily know how to do it and they don't want to do it. So you're absolutely right. It was a golden hour in my career where I was young enough, and I certainly wasn't in my 20s, let me tell that. I was older than that. I was a gen Xer. But I was really the only one in that whole news division and media division that was in a position that knew it, that could use it, and that could go out and do something about it.


Molly McPherson:

I'm proud of myself that I had the courage to do it, but I knew that something was there. The fact that I tried it and I went out, I just waited for the next disaster to happen. I prayed that it wasn't a winter storm somewhere, because it was February. It turned out to be tornadoes in Tennessee. I took my backpack, got on a plane, and went there and just took my camera out and started filming the people who were impacted by these storms. I found the FEMA stakeholder. Not just the neutral FEMA stakeholder, I found the stakeholder who loved FEMA. So the quotes-


Archive News Footage:

There was five people that lived here, so they got out to their car and they looked back and their trailer was gone.


Archive News Footage:

The storm literally just picked up the house and dumped it.


Archive News Footage:

When they were laying down underneath there, bawling, and you're taking chainsaws trying to cut them out.


Archive News Footage:

I started crying and screaming to my son, "My house is going! My house is going!"


Archive News Footage:

You can't replace a life, but you always can replace everything else.


Molly McPherson:

People were so willing to tell the story about how we were helping them, because I'm telling them in the middle of their house that's been destroyed. I'm filming them while there is a tree through their trailer. I'm filming them when they just get handed cash to be able to buy food. They allowed me to film them and bring it back to headquarters. I worked with the AV team there. We packaged all of the film together and I said, "What can we do with it?" So my first idea was to do vignettes to put on the air, but those vignettes really turned into social media videos.


Dusty Weis:

That's incredible. And again, so far ahead of its time. What was the reaction that you got to these vignettes when they hit the web both from headquarters, but also from the public at large.


Molly McPherson:

The first thing I had to do was present it. I had to get buy in from all of the regions. I had all the communicators in a room, everyone was packed. I had to give the presentation, "Well, this is what I want to do. This is my mini documentary." I was showing the videos and I was telling them my vision of how we would roll this out. I was telling them the problems and the feedback that I was getting from the press, and what reporters were telling me. Then I would show them a video of what one of our stakeholders was saying, and I merged the two together. I said, "What we do here now is we just bypass the press." We're public information officers. It's our duty to put out this information certainly. But we don't need to wait on the press to pick up our side of the story and worry about the bias from that story. We're still going to do that business, but in the meantime we're going to go to our website and we're going to start uploading these videos. Then we're going to turn it to social media.


Molly McPherson:

This was the time of Facebook, when it was starting to expand and Twitter was just there. I said, "We need to be the first agency that jumps on this social media piece." The buy in, it was so quick. It was unanimous yes around the room, "Go! Go!" I couldn't get out of the room fast enough to start working for what they wanted to do and it just went from there.


Dusty Weis:

Molly McPherson had the leadership buy in. She had a new media channel and carte blanche to tell the agency's stories from the field where they were happening. What she didn't have yet was a full appreciation of just how dangerous the field could be. Until that reality hit her, well, like a truck.


Molly McPherson:

I was filming live as the van went over me and stopped on me.


Dusty Weis:

So, coming up after the break, the story of Molly's near death encounter in the wake of Hurricane Ike and one colleague's story of how the perils of the field followed him home.


Mike Moore:

To keep your cool in the bright face of death is ... I don't really know how to describe it to you.


Dusty Weis:

That's in a minute here on Lead Balloon.


Dusty Weis:

This is Lead Balloon and I'm Dusty Weis. Molly Baker McPherson was at the top of her game. In that way that only a coms professional whose new media initiative is killing it with the public and dazzling the management can be. In response to continued bad press for FEMA, her team headed out into the field to tell the agency's story directly to the public itself. Wherever disaster struck, they would follow relief workers into the field and document the life changing work as it happened. So as summer wound down in 2008, she found herself headed south as Hurricanes Hannah and Ike bore down on the coast.


Molly McPherson:

I went with a team of four. It was Jocelyn Augustino who was a wonderful, very talented FEMA photographer, and she's all over FEMA right now for her coverage of the 9/11 response that she did. Also a colleague of mine, John Shay who worked as an executive producer. My videographer, Mike Moore, and then myself working as on air and a producer. Our job was just to follow tropical storm Hannah as it went down the coast. So we followed the gulf coast, went through all the states, and then eventually Tropical Storm Hannah became Hurricane Hannah, and then Hurricane Ike came right after that.


Molly McPherson:

So it was a gulf storm event and we just followed it along telling the stories of what FEMA was doing. What FEMA was doing at the JIC. At the Joint Information Center. What we were doing with our partners, with Walmart and all the other private sector partners that we had. It was just this awesome project that was so well received. DHS, Department of Homeland Security, they were getting all the feeds. Everything was broadcast directly back through the satellite, back to headquarters, and it was just a wonderful program. I was so happy to be a part of it.


Mike Moore:

When I look back at what Molly and I did together, it was just great. It was really a fun time. She was a great partner to have. She had a skill set that I didn't have and I had a skill set that she didn't have, so together we made a formidable team.


Dusty Weis:

Mike Moore was one member of Molly's team and filled the role of photojournalist. These days he's working in a clock shop in Florida. But we'll get to that in a bit. But you'll hear the noise of chiming clocks in the background here. Mike is a bit of a polymath, which I happen to like a lot. Prior to meeting Molly, he worked as a psychiatrist, a photojournalist, firefighter, bike shop owner, public affairs rep for the Coast Guard Auxiliary, and in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, he was doing field work for FEMA when he decided to interview for the public affairs role.


Mike Moore:

I was working in a trailer park where they parked the trailers so close that it was one person wide. You had to slide down sideways down these trailers to get to the front door. We were the forgotten people that did the work behind the scenes that kept the machinery in the front where everybody got to see on CNN and Anderson Cooper got to report on. I said, "These people are giving up a lot to keep the machine running. So I want to tell their story." She said, "You want to tell FEMA's story?" I said, "Yeah." She goes, "You're hired."


Dusty Weis:

So Mike signed on with Molly's team and before too long, they both found themselves headed into the teeth of Hurricane Ike.


Mike Moore:

We were driving in from the east and we were the only car heading on I-10 in the west direction. But the east direction was bumper to bumper as far as the eye could see in every direction. I remember feeling this eerie sense of foreboding when the electronic signs were flashing "Bad hurricane approaching. If you can see this sign, turn around."


Dusty Weis:

Oh my god.


Mike Moore:

That kind of thing. So we go into town, we hunker down in the Crown Plaza. That was Sunday night. Ike hit Sunday night and I was awakened from a NyQuil coma because I had caught a cold along the way somewhere and I knew it was going to be a hard day the next day. So I actually was awakened by the hotel shaking at 3:00 in the morning from category four winds at 70 foot up in the air. I looked out my window and it was apocalyptic. It was absolutely apocalyptic.


Dusty Weis:

As the winds died down, FEMA headquarters sent Mike, Molly, and the team east, about 100 miles to Orange, Texas. A more rural area that suffered from extreme flooding as a result of this story. There they braved long hot days, and soggy stifling nights. Battled leeches and slogged through flood waters contaminated with sewage, all just to document FEMA's aid efforts.


Mike Moore:

They billeted us in a high school that had no power. It was about 90 degrees. There was about 100 sweaty, tired search and rescue first responders in this gymnasium that they put all these cots out on. There was about a half an inch to an inch of water on the floor where the hurricane had blown water all the way through the school. Through every nook and cranny in the school. That honestly was the longest night of my life. I didn't sleep at all. When I got up in the morning, you could see there was a dark outline of sweat stained cot, because it was so miserable in that place.


Dusty Weis:

If you've never worked as a communicator in the aftermath of a disaster, and let's face it, most of us haven't. You might not appreciate just how self sufficient you have to be to do your job. It's not just a professional challenge, it's a survival challenge.


Molly McPherson:

There's so many other things that you need to think about as you're covering storms. You need to have gas in your car, and gas stations close. You need to have food. You need to travel to places with no power. You need to find a place to sleep. So at the start of the journey when we're in nice hotels, and we're at the W before the storm hits. By the time we're in Galveston, we're knee deep in the muck, in the swamp, in the heat, in the humidity after the damage and we were filming everything.


Dusty Weis:

But that muck took its toll on Molly McPherson's footwear. She trashed a pair of boots in sewage tainted floodwaters, leaving her to report for duty in a pair of sandals. Then new orders came in from Washington.


Molly McPherson:

We were tasked with bringing the satellite truck and our team to Houston to film the efforts of FEMA coming in and doing their support on the ground where we were distributing water and ice. At that time, we were all working together, broadcasting together. It was hotter than blazes. My work boots were trashed. So I made the mistake of putting sandals on. Because I was so hot. You know, the rubber sandals, you know, whatever. But I needed some relief and I thought, "What could happen?" I'm just reporting from a parking lot."


Molly McPherson:

As we were there, we were reporting again the good story. We were showing the work that FEMA was doing on the ground to help people impacted by Hurricane Ike. The cars were lined up down the street for miles, and we're there distributing.


Mike Moore:

Basically it was a melee at the time. They had to call the police out. Because there was probably close to 1,000 desperate people and as they say, desperate people do desperate things. Well these were very desperate people.


Dusty Weis:

Mike and Molly moved through the scene gathering testimony and documenting the efforts until nature called. As so often happens in the field, Mike needed to excuse himself for a moment and wanted to take a quick breather in the air conditioned trailer. But instead of doing likewise, Molly insisted on staying out with the camera to capture the ongoing fracas.


Molly McPherson:

I haven't even lifted up the camera. Let me do the B roll for you. I had that camera for all of, I don't know, three minutes at the most and a police officer was directing traffic and there was one van filled with all these people who wanted to cut the line. That police officer was not having it, and he went right up to that van and said, "Get out of here! You're cutting the line!" He's like, "Move, move, move!" And he's yelling at them. He told them to back up and get out of there. The guy was angry and he put the car in reverse, and you heard the squeal of the tires to back up, but the problem is, is he went forward. And he went forward right over me. I was filming live as the van went over me and stopped on me-


Dusty Weis:

And stopped?


Molly McPherson:

On my leg.


Dusty Weis:

On top of you.


Molly McPherson:

Without my boot.


Dusty Weis:

People that have been in an accident like that will tell you that things happen in slow motion and that the sensations seem almost otherworldly. That it's like watching it from the third person. You see it from above, or you see it from outside your body. You don't immediately feel the sensations. But what do you remember about that immediate impact? Being driven over by a van?


Molly McPherson:

Dusty, that's such a good description of it. Because it's true, not many people can say that they've had a moment where they do live in the moment of abject fear, and they don't know the fear is there yet. Because you're in shock that it's happening to you.


Molly McPherson:

My first thought is when I was hit, of course is, "What the heck was that?" Then you have to frame what's happening. Step by step, you say "Okay, where am I? I'm in Houston. Where am I in Houston? Okay, I'm at this Baptist church. What am I doing? Okay, so the camera's here and there's a van, but the van appears to be on my leg." This sounds awful, but the feeling is, I don't know if you remember, you're younger than me, but there was a Sesame Street skit where it said, "There's a V on my knee, and it's killing me." That's what came back. The bees were around? It was about the letter V. But that's how I felt. There's a van on my leg.


Dusty Weis:

That was the first neuron that fired in your brain-


Molly McPherson:

Yes, exactly, right! At the time I was training for a marathon, and I was trying to keep up with marathon training even though I was chasing these hurricanes. I was still trying to do it. As Hurricane Ike hit, I was in the gym and I was running, because I had found a time to run. But my first thought was, "Oh gosh, this is going to impact my running schedule."


Dusty Weis:

Like that's the worst thing that happened that day.


Molly McPherson:

Yeah, this is probably going to hurt my foot for a bit and I won't be able to run. This is a drag. Then nothing's happening. There's just panic. The police officer's leaning over and looking at me in a panic. When I saw the authority figure look like he was going to pass out like, "Oh my gosh." Then it started to hit me. Then I realized, "Oh this van has hit my leg. Well this is bad. This is crushing my leg." Then you think, "Oh my gosh, my leg could be crushed under this. Do I feel my leg? I don't even think I feel my leg. What if I lose my leg? What if I lose my life?" All of that slowly goes through your head. I really then went into a state of shock.


Mike Moore:

That should've been me, because I would've been behind her, and that guy would've had to go through me before he got to her, and in the process, I would've pushed her out of the way and she wouldn't have suffered from the injuries that she did.


Dusty Weis:

For Mike Moore, the moments leading up to the crash are seared forever in his memory. Most of us wouldn't even think twice about stepping away for a quick bathroom break and a cool down in the trailer. But with his background in the Coast Guard Auxiliary and with FEMA's quasi military culture, in the wake of the accident he was left to struggle with misplaced guilt.


Mike Moore:

I'm like, "You're never supposed to leave your partner." You know? And I left her. So I felt tremendously guilty about that for years. We couldn't figure out how he could possibly not notice that there was a person standing right in front of him when he put the van in gear and didn't ease off, just bolted off.


Molly McPherson:

Everyone around me was in a panic. It was only punctured by the police officer saying to the guy, because the guy got out of the van because he was in shock looking at me on the ground. He said, "Get in that van! Get in that van! And get this off her leg!" I thought, "Okay, it's coming off my leg." But I had that moment of clarity of knowing that he had to drive it off my leg. So he either was going to drive over me, or he was going to reverse and I was going to feel it. Then I was worried about what I was going to see. When he reversed it. Oh boy. That's when the pain came, and that's when I knew, "This is bad. This is going to alter my life."


Dusty Weis:

Now as this is all unfolding for you, your cameraman Mike is off in the trailer. But the camera that you have is rolling and it has a live feed that is streaming back to headquarters in Washington DC. So they're watching this play out in real time as well. What's happening back at headquarters?


Molly McPherson:

Well, everyone was calling me. So my phone which was on the cement next to me was blowing up. Everyone is calling me. Because it was instantaneous that people at headquarters knew. The only thing that people knew was Molly McPherson was run over by a truck. They thought I died. Because no one knew. But in the control room, they had the live feed. So I was told it went to FEMA and to DHS. People were watching it and they could see what was happening.


Dusty Weis:

Mike had actually been talking with his boss in the satellite truck as the accident unfolded.


Mike Moore:

I was standing there, getting ready to ask him what was the next mission and they had the satellite truck's camera pointed at her. So everybody in the truck watched her get run over by this church bus.


Dusty Weis:

Horrified, he rushed out of the trailer to where Molly was still pinned.


Molly McPherson:

Poor Mike looked at me like, "Oh my gosh, I was gone for five minutes, and this is what happens when I give you my camera?"


Dusty Weis:

Mike and the other team members stood by and tried to comfort Molly, while officers directed the reckless driver back into the vehicle.


Molly McPherson:

I even remember when he got back into the seat where the truck kind of goes down back on the leg, and that's when all my pain receptors were working, and that's when I knew. That was my PTSD moment. I could hear the car going in reverse. You know that handle coming out, and I could hear it. Then he backed it over my leg. It was excruciating pain. The sandal was cut into my foot, into my tendons. I had a lot of damage on my leg. So at that point, the ambulance was already there and they brought me out. But then I got carted away, on my own. I just knew, "Damn, that was a good job." I knew it was over. My spirit was as crushed as my leg.


Dusty Weis:

Any long term damage? I'm assuming they got you into orthopedic surgery and fixed the broken foot? I'm assuming you didn't run the marathon that followed up? But are you still a runner?


Molly McPherson:

I'm still a runner, but Dusty I haven't been able to run a marathon since then and I struggle over 10 miles. I have the long term repercussions from it. That part makes me sad, as I don't have the foot that have. I certainly don't have the high heel foot that I would like to have when I speak. So it's definitely misshapen, and I have pain from it. But you know what? It could've been a lot worse, and people experience a lot worse things when they're out covering disasters. So I just feel grateful, honestly.


Dusty Weis:

But nobody escapes a brush with death without coming away changed in some way. Certainly not Molly, but not Mike either. His team would go on to spend months in the Hurricane Ike disaster zone, documenting the clean up and recovery efforts. But he says that without Molly's strategic communications mindset, their efforts didn't seem to have the same impact.


Mike Moore:

We would spend quite a bit of time brainstorming on how we could make our product better and reach out to more, and touch the lives of more people. That's where Molly really shined. Because that's what she really does best. I mean, we missed her as a team member and I missed her as a partner. We missed her a lot because she really did bring a lot to the table. When she left us, it left a void that we had a hard time trying to fill. I don't think I ever got another partner actually.


Dusty Weis:

You said you kept doing the job for a while after that until you got hurt yourself too, right? What happened to you?


Mike Moore:

I got hurt, but it wasn't really a physical hurt. I'd been out in the Houston area and Galveston Bolivar Peninsula for about six to seven months. As a photographer, our job is to look, focus, and take a picture. We couldn't even avert our eyes. Honestly I couldn't stand to look at the death and destruction another day. I called my lead and I said, listen, I just can't do this anymore. I can't do it. It's starting to get to me now. It's been seven months and they still have the same pile of debris right here next to the road that they haven't cleaned up in seven months. I have walk or drive by it. I can't do it anymore. My lead said, "Well, give me two more weeks. Can you give me two weeks?" I'm like, "I just don't know." She goes, "Please, please, please." "Okay. Two more weeks."


Mike Moore:

Well, I hung up with her and I got a call from a person that was on my team, an older gentleman. He had admitted himself to the hospital with chest pains. It was just stress. It was just stress, it's a very stressful job.


Dusty Weis:

It's hard to live like that for a couple of days, let alone months at a time. You talk about it wasn't a real hurt, that sounds like a real hurt to me, man.


Mike Moore:

Well, what happens is you don't really realize what's happening to you until after the fact. But I called my lead in, I said, "Hey, look, I told you you're running us too hard and now we've got a casualty. If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem." I got a call back in about five minutes and she said, "Okay, I'm pulling the plug, everybody's going home." Which was a blessing. Because we just had been run to the edge of our ability to cope.


Mike Moore:

I left and I suffered from PTSD from that and other experiences I had while I was on the road for many years. It's getting better now. It's been quite a while now, so it's getting better. But for several years, probably about five years after that, until about 2013, '14, or something like that. I was pretty bad. FEMA doesn't really have ... I mean, they have some things in place to help people deal with that kind of stuff. But-


Dusty Weis:

It's not like the VA where they've got an entire program set up-


Mike Moore:

Yeah, we're not, yeah-


Dusty Weis:

Even though you go through a lot of the same experiences, you're not necessarily included in that envelope.


Mike Moore:

We're not sworn.


Dusty Weis:

Yeah.


Mike Moore:

We're not sworn. So we have no rights. We do go through the same thing, except being shot at, and even then sometimes we get shot at by citizens. They try their best not to put us in harm's way. But it doesn't matter. We're in harm's way anyway because when you're crunching through piles and piles of debris at any minute, you could be a casualty, you know?


Dusty Weis:

Mm-hmm.


Mike Moore:

There were some remedies for us. They had counselors in some of the disaster centers and such like that. But for the most part, we had really no mental health services to help us to deal with the extraordinary circumstances we found ourselves in. Most of us that were seasoned veterans had been to multiple just horrific disasters. I took pictures in New Orleans after Katrina, Rita. Ike was just cataclysmic. I've been to tornado storms in Alabama that literally wiped half a mile wide swath of housing development to the dirt. Things like that. Things that you can't unsee.


Mike Moore:

There's a lot of people I think that probably have the same kind of issues that I do. But we're the silent few that we have no rights, no recourse, no remedy, unless we have our own private insurances and our own private counseling and things like that. I'm now considered permanently disabled. Part of that was I picked part of that up while I was in the service. There's no way they could deny that. It just happened and I have to live with it because I have no recourse.


Mike Moore:

There's nothing that covers me for anything that happens while I was in the service unless it happened while I was on the job and I reported it. They would usually just send you home. Not to a doctor. If you say, "I hurt myself." You're going home. When you go home, you don't get paid.


Dusty Weis:

Again, in that clip with Mike, you hear the sound of antique clocks in the background. That's because in his journey after leaving FEMA and battling through his PTSD, Mike has turned a new corner as a master clock smith in Florida. But he says when he looks back at his time spent at the agency, even though there were experiences that caused him pain, he finds great value in the work that he did there.


Mike Moore:

Yeah, it's not an easy job. No, it's a very difficult job. To keep your cool in the bright face of death is ... I don't really know how to describe it to you. I feel like I'm in an analyst's office or something and I'm talking to a fellow practitioner. But some of the things that I've seen are so horrible, that it's hard to relate to people how bad something is. I have more than 200 pictures in the national archives of the United States that are going to be there for perpetually. I'm proud to be one person that was able to do that.


Dusty Weis:

I think that there's immense value in what you did. I had somebody ask me once back when I was a news reporter, there'd been a bad tornado in central Wisconsin and we were shooting photography after it. We saw some stuff that'll stick with us forever. I had somebody say to me that day, "What are you guys doing out here, you guys are just ambulance chasing." I didn't really know what to say at the time, but I thought about it for weeks and weeks afterwards. I eventually arrived at a conclusion that no, we're not ambulance chasing out here. We're out here to bear witness. These are people. People whose lives and possessions are gone forever. If I can validate that they once existed, just by being here and by bearing witness to this terrible thing that happened, maybe that makes the impact that they had and their lives just last a little bit longer for my having been there to help tell that story to other people.


Mike Moore:

Yeah. My swan song will be creating time machines that will outlive me and people can enjoy hopefully for generations to come. Again, it just falls back to to the same thing. What am I going to do to leave a mark that I was here? Well, I'm going to leave people with custom built clocks and commissioned clocks that will stand the test of time. No pun intended.


Dusty Weis:

It's provided a wonderful musical background track to our discussion here, certainly.


Mike Moore:

There you go.


Dusty Weis:

But it doesn't surprise me to hear that a renaissance man such as yourself has found yet another creative way to express himself.


Mike Moore:

Do you know how many people have called me that?


Dusty Weis:

A renaissance man?


Mike Moore:

I get called that all the time. You know what? Until about a year ago, I never really understood what they were talking about. Like, "Okay, renaissance man. So you think I'm from the middle ages or something? You know what, I'm going to look this up so I know exactly what they're talking about." Now that I know what they're talking about, I'm like, "You only go around once, and you better make the best of it, right? Why not go for it?" And I did.


Dusty Weis:

While Mike turned his life after FEMA in a completely different direction, as she recovered from her injuries, Molly McPherson was also pondering what was next.


Molly McPherson:

Thankfully FEMA kept me on, and still working with FEMA. At that time I could be a reservist. It was another military move that brought us up back to New England. I was working at a reservist, doing media and was working in the news section for them with their news program. But that's when I decided I needed to make a change in my career, just the marital issues at the time. I couldn't go back to FEMA at headquarters. So unfortunately I had to step away from FEMA, because my spouse at the time was leaving the military and needed a job. He ended up going to FEMA. I was just looking for my purpose.


Molly McPherson:

But I knew it was the same thing. It was taking this knowledge that I knew about, media relations, about public relations, about crisis management, and how to manage a crisis in the digital age. My first step was teaching. That was the first thing I did, is I went to a college. A dean was so excited because he really wanted to get into social media. Because he again, didn't understand it. So I started teaching courses and I recognized, this is my work here. That I can work as a consultant. Not only teaching workshops, but also doing crisis management work. But a very specific lane of it is when a crisis can spill online and it becomes a digital crisis. So that's where it started. That's the point of origin.


Dusty Weis:

And surprising absolutely nobody, Molly has carved out a healthy little consulting business for herself. Becoming a well-known authority at the intersection of crisis coms in the virtual world.


Molly McPherson:

Dusty, you had mentioned the term, a black swan crisis which kudos to you for understanding that. I'm sure many of your listeners know, that black swan event is that unknown unknown. But these black swan events happen all the time. Because if there's a crisis that happens on social media, that in and of itself is going to be a black swan event. So now we are a sea of black swans. We're looking for the white swans now.


Molly McPherson:

But what I tell clients or people who I teach, or even on my podcast, if you work for an organization your next crisis is going to be a digital crisis. It's either going to start there, or it will combust there. But you need to address the social implications of what's going to happen in the digital space. Either through social media or through some type of digital media online. Whether it's reviews or feedback. So you always want to address that social piece of it.


Molly McPherson:

I find so much of my work right now, it's split. I do retainer work. I also do consult work. You know those crisis, "We need an immediate triage, I'm here I can help you." But I've also created an online program to teach a lot of these communicators and leaders how to manage these crises that come up. Because what I'm finding, and you alluded to this earlier when we talked about our ages. So many organizations right now are hiring digital specialists and communications specialists to do all the pretty things online and make videos and do social media.


Molly McPherson:

But they don't understand necessarily public relations. They don't have a training in crisis management. So there's a gap there. A huge one, and a very risky one. I have found training these specialists, these millennials and these up and coming, the next will be gen Z, and how to manage a crisis and how to do it on digital? That's how you can redeem yourself if a crisis happens and that's how you can build the trust of your stakeholders by building this good will online. That's been a nice little sweet spot in my business now, is doing those three parts together.


Dusty Weis:

That's become a major industry. Again, something that you were on the very forefront of, first as an academic, then as a consultant. Has become a multi billion dollar consulting industry. So kudos to you for being in a really sweet spot there.


Molly McPherson:

Yes. Let's be clear, I personally am not a billion dollar business, yet Dusty.


Dusty Weis:

Well, you've got the book.


Molly McPherson:

I've got the book.


Dusty Weis:

You've got the podcast. And you've found this niche at the intersection of reputation management and social media. It's been fascinating getting to pick your brain and hear the stories of your career so far. Well Molly, short of actually typing it into the Google search bar, if we want to learn more about you and your organization and what you do, where do we go to find that?


Molly McPherson:

Well certainly my website mollymcpherson.com, but my book Indestructible, that's where I'm all in now. It's this idea of indestructible PR. This online course I have is Indestructible Online. I have my podcast, of course. But you can find me anywhere online. I spend a lot of time on Twitter. I love Twitter. I love following people on Twitter. If they have any questions, I like following people as well on Twitter. But that's where I feel like a lot of the information is happening there on social media. But definitely reach out to me, because this is one of my favorite topics. As it is yours Dusty, I can tell.


Dusty Weis:

Molly, your book is called Indestructible, Reclaim Control and Respond with Confidence in a Media Crisis. You host the Confident Communications podcast. I will say I got to page a little bit through the book as I prepped for this interview. I'm looking forward to consuming the rest of it, but Molly McPherson, thank you for joining us on the Lead Balloon podcast.


Molly McPherson:

It was my pleasure, Dusty. Thank you.


Dusty Weis:

That is going to do it for this episode of Lead Balloon. A special thanks to Mike Moore for adding his perspective to this story and for sharing the very personal details of his struggle with PTSD. Frankly, I can rattle off a half dozen or more former colleagues who have struggled or still struggle with the things that they saw out in the fields. It doesn't get talked about nearly enough. If you or somebody you love is battling through something like that, just remember getting help isn't whining. It isn't weakness. It's an act of bravery. Get the help that you need.


Dusty Weis:

Thanks as well to Molly McPherson. Molly and I by the way kept talking for another 10 minutes. She had some great thoughts on cancel culture, how organizations should respond to it, and how some folks are trying to weaponize the backlash against it. If you want to hear those, subscribe to Lead Balloon in your favorite podcast app. We will be pushing that conversation out as a 10 minute bonus episode a little bit later this month. Also follow Podcamp Media on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn for the video version.


Dusty Weis:

Lead Balloon is produced by Podcamp Media where we provide branded podcast production solutions for businesses. Our new podcast studios are located in the heart of beautiful downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin. We work with brands all over North America. Check out our website podcampmedia.com. Larry Kilgore III handled some of the dialogue editing for this episode. Thanks as always to Larry. Until the next time folks, thanks for listening. I'm Dusty Weis.



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