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.