Saturday, September 5, 2009

Winnipeg firefighters’ new public service: lessons in crisis management

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about the Winnipeg firefighters’ union president’s response to the salacious tale about a firefighter who had been caught “kissing” a young woman in a shed behind the Osborne Street fire hall. At the time, Alex Forrest's response seemed appropriate, given that one of his union members had clearly crossed the line and the union and management both appeared to be acknowledging it and taking action to address it.

It now appears that may not have been entirely true.

In Friday’s Winnipeg Free Press, the young woman involved in the shed incident came forward with her side of the story: she claimed to have been taken advantage of, she contradicted the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service (WFPS) firefighters’ union's public statements that nothing more than kissing had taken place during the encounter, and she recounted having been ignored when she came forward to complain to fire officials shortly after the incident.

Now, I’m in no position to decide who’s telling the truth in this case – I wasn’t there, and I don’t know any of the people involved. But the Free Press story contains some direct quotes from fire department officials which provide some insight.

Ken Sim, the deputy chief of operations for the WFPS, said Thursday the woman's claims are alarming and contrary to what the firefighter at the centre of the controversy claims happened.

"It certainly would shed some different light on this if in fact she was taken advantage of. If that's the case, I would certainly encourage her to get in touch with the Winnipeg Police Service," said Sim. "We dealt with the information the firefighter provided us at face value."

If, indeed, the woman's complaint had been swept under the rug and kept from WFPS brass, they would have had to base their decisions on how to discipline the offender, and to respond to media, on the information they had. The same goes for Forrest: in terms of the response to the initial “what happened” questions, if you believe he didn’t know the woman had ever come forward and had no way to find her, he had to base his response on what the involved firefighter told him. We can’t hold people responsible for things they couldn’t have known.

However. Making definitive-sounding statements about what happened in a controversial incident when you know you've only got one side of the story is asking for trouble.

Friday's Free Press story gave Alex Forrest the opportunity to revisit his earlier statements given the new allegations, which he called "troubling."

Forrest questioned her motives for only coming forward now, through the media, and whether her claims were accurate.

Logically, if the woman’s claim is true, then she isn’t only coming forward now – she came forward earlier, and was ignored. And how could using the media be somehow suspect, if she had tried to complain directly (and privately) to the WFPS and been sent away?

Again, we can't know who's telling the truth. But from a PR perspective, it doesn’t matter: the fire department now looks like it has engaged in a cover up. We have a brand new round of media stories; and what was initially one employee with bad judgment has grown into a potential conspiracy.

If we turned back the clock and looked at the media coverage from when the story first broke, do you think the stories would have been much worse for the WFPS had they reported sexual relations in the shed? I don’t, really. I heard a number of Winnipeggers react to Forrest’s suggestion that, at only 5-8 minutes, there wasn’t time for more than kissing, with “yeah, right!” It was inappropriate behaviour no matter how you slice it – kissing, sexual relations, whatever. It wasn’t what heroes do on the job – that’s why it was a story.

Now, however, because the allegedly silenced victim is here to share her side of the story, the WFPS and its hundreds of hard-working men and women get treated to another round of humiliating coverage.

It’s tough to say whether any of the spokespeople could have done anything differently when the charges first came out, other than to acknowledge they were going solely on the firefighter's word.

But this story does illustrate once again why good crisis communications follow three key rules:

- Tell the truth,
- Tell it first, and
- Tell it all.

Had the WFPS and/or the firefighters’ union had the whole story, and told it right off the hop, there wouldn't have been anything new for the media this week. They, and their employees, might have been able to continue the job of moving on from this embarrassing incident, rather than re-living it yet again.

At this point, the WFPS has a lot of work to do before it's done with this file. It needs to somehow get to the bottom of what really happened – both in the shed, and potentially in its offices when (and if) the young woman initially came forward. Now beyond a single "bad" employee issue, the WFPS has to address the appearance of a corporate culture of deception, in which firefighters are willing to cover up their buddies' bad behaviour at the expense of the public they're supposed to serve.

I sure hope that fellow enjoyed his 5-8 minutes.

Winnipeg's high-profile romantic getaway.


  1. While my heart goes out to the hardworking firefighters and paramedics, it appears much of this current issue could have been avoided if the union president would have attempted to hear from both witnesses in the story.

    Whether or not the women involved made a statement that was ignored is not what I find shocking about this. I am stunned that the WFPS union can have a disciplinary hearing without interviewing the other person who was involved in the incidence, the key witness. And, the fact that it was a closed door hearing, as reported in the Winnipeg Free Press, again hurts the reputation of the WFPS and its employees.

    I'd add one more point to your list above: learn the truth, the whole truth, and then be the first to tell it. It’s a sad lesson that the firefighters and paramedics may be learning the hard way.

  2. Hi Jolene! I'll bet everyone who had to deal with this (both WFPS and union) before knowing who the woman was wished they'd had the benefit of her side of the story before they had to go out in front of the cameras.

    Practically speaking, the WFPS had to deal with disciplining the employee, even if the woman was gone and no-one knew who she was or how to find her (or if they'd ever hear from her again). Not an ideal situation, for sure, but it'd have been even worse had word of this incident gotten out and they'd had to admit they hadn't disciplined the employee at all, because they didn't have the woman's side of the story.

    You're right: examples like this show why the organization/communicators should endeavour to get the whole story right up front; unfortunately, though, that requires everyone holding relevant information to see the value of getting out in front of the story, which doesn't always happen.

  3. If only we could work in hindsight, how much clearer things would be.