When a News Conference Goes Wrong
It's been a busy week or so for the RCMP in Canada. As they continue to search for two young men who are wanted for killing three people in northern BC, they also apologized for the way they handled a missing person case that turned into a murder.
Nine years ago, Amber Tuccaro went missing in the Edmonton area, but the Mounties didn't take it seriously, losing valuable investigative time. Her killer still hasn't been found.
Last week they issued an apology for their shoddy police work, but then found a way to make the situation worse. I was asked to comment to CBC News about what happened.
I had just finished hitting some balls last Friday at Redtail Landing Golf Course just south of Edmonton when I got a call from CBC reporter Raffy Boudjikanian. He asked me for my thoughts on the RCMP’s apology to the family of murder victim Amber Tuccaro and what happened at the end of the news conference the day before.
After I provided my opinion, he asked me if I would agree to an interview, which I did with CBC that afternoon. A clip of the interview was carried on the local CBC News Friday evening, parts of the interview were aired on the national CBC radio news the following day and I was quoted in a CBC website story.
I was critical of the way the RCMP handled the news conference, which wasn’t easy for me to do. I respect the work of the RCMP across Canada and everything officers do in small and large communities to try to keep us safe. The Mounties are one of Canada’s great institutions and deserve respect. Unfortunately, the way they have conducted their media relations over the years hasn’t been nearly as good.
The RCMP was basically forced to apologize to the Tuccaro's family because of the shoddy way it handled the investigation into her disappearance and murder.
At the news conference in Edmonton last Thursday, RCMP Deputy Commissioner Curtis Zablocki read a prepared statement and made a very heartfelt apology to members of Amber’s family, who were sitting in the front row.
After that, Amber’s family was taking questions from the media when the news conference was shut down by an RCMP spokesperson who said the event had run overtime and Zablocki had an important meeting to get to.
In fairness to the RCMP and Zablocki, he had read his prepared apology and taken questions from the media. He had spent 50 minutes in the room. Unfortunately, that wasn’t long enough.
The RCMP took the unusual step of sending a news release to the media that evening explaining why Zablocki had to leave and expressed disappointment that some media outlets had taken that angle for their stories.
“The optics were terrible” was what I told the CBC reporter during my interview.
When you plan a news conference you need to think about logistics such as how long the event will be. Somewhere in that pre-analysis you need to determine what you should do if the news conference runs long. The last thing you should do is shut it down and say the main spokesperson has have something else to do.
In the minds of most of the public, this was the most important thing the Deputy Commission needed to do that day. Maybe it wasn’t, but there’s no getting around the bad optics of leaving before it was over.
I mentioned earlier that the local RCMP’s media relations record hasn’t been great. Last November there was a bombing underneath the County Hall building in Sherwood Park.
The RCMP provided next to no information to the news media that evening and the next day held a news conference to basically again provide no information, but instead ask the media to tell the public not to speculate about what happened. That’s not even close to textbook media relations and I did a blog on it at the time.
Months later, Global News released the outcome of several freedom of information requests to show the problems caused to the County of Strathcona by the lack of communication from the RCMP. The Mounties said next to nothing publicly about the incident, leaving the County twisting in the wind. The County could also have done a much better job of telling its side of the story.
For clarity, I am not blaming communications people for the RCMP for either of the situations. It’s been my experience that people at senior levels of the RCMP call the shots when it comes to communicating with the media and public and make the major decisions.
I understand the RCMP has a difficult job to do, but informing the media in a timely fashion could have been better last year and leaving the news conference too early last week certainly wasn’t their best work either.
The optics were terrible. I know some of the comms people at the RCMP, and I trust they're too smart not to have given the advice for the commissioner to stay until the final question was asked and the family left. Nothing else mattered that day, from the public's perception, and, as tough as it is, whoever the lead communications person was should have insisted the Deputy Commish stay until the bitter end.
What was he thinking? He undermined any positive public perception they might've gained that morning, tough as it would have been.
I don't know what happened in either case. I do think that communications people aren't to blame. Unfortunately, they take as much heat for what happened.
Hi Grant You are absolutely correct The optics were terrible
People won't remember every word
But they will remember abrupt behavior
Very compelling post. On behalf of communicators and public relations professionals, THANK YOU for acknowledging that it isn't always their fault when these things go sideways. I have learned over my career that my role as a communication professional is to provide my best advice to leadership, but it doesn't mean they have to take that advice. If they don't, then I have to ensure we achieve the desired results (and potentially work on a mitigation strategy in the background if things go sideways). These can be hard lessons for leadership, but hopefully it is a lesson learned.
I don't know of any good communications/media relations/public relations person who tells their bosses "let's not talk to the media - they don't need to know."
Yes it usually is entrenched management that is resistant to speaking to the media and that's why i said that. Thanks for highlighting it.