I had an experience this Tuesday past that I won’t soon forget. Following a 10 a.m. meeting, my manager brought me into an urgent situation.
A tragic accident had occurred at a job site owned and maintained by another federal department and the contract for the work being done had been procured by the department I work for (PWGSC). One of the contractor’s employees had been seriously injured — possibly fatally, the media was on-site. That’s all we knew.
The first step was getting the story straight. I learned as much as I could about the situation, as quickly as possible by talking with other stakeholders. I drafted a situation brief and background.
All the while, my understanding of the situation developed. Federal and provincial departments that investigate such accidents had dispatched investigation teams to the site.
I quickly established messages using a similar situation from several years ago as a reference. I learned that in situations like this, it’s extremely important to not jump to conclusions.
- The situation was under investigation and commenting on it would be inappropriate.
- What we could comment on, if asked, was the nature of the work the contract was for, and the relationship between PWGSC, Parks, the contractor and the job site.
- We could emphasize how regrettable the tragedy is and that our thoughts are with the family and friends of the injured worker.
I shared developments with our Issues Management team who supply our Minister’s office with up-to-date information.
The following 5 hours:
Communication between myself and the other federal department’s communicator remained open as we pieced the situation together. It was decided that they would be the lead department on media inquiries, however questions regarding the nature of the work and the contract would fall to us.
We learned that the worker had in fact passed away. We paused to reflect on this tragic news. Planning was updated to include this information.
The first news reports had appeared the previous evening. The Ontario spokesperson for the investigation had been quoted in one and the attributed information was grossly inaccurate.
I found a phone number for the provincial ministry’s media contact; the same person who had been quoted. I meant to find out if the spokesperson had been wrong or misquoted.
I touched base with the provincial spokesperson and made sure our information jived. I learned that they were not yet in a position to release the name of the deceased, and that a revision to the article would be published online later that day, and in print the following morning. The revision was more correct, but mentioned PWGSC as the owner of the work site.
Is this a big deal? Well sort of, but after discussing the matter with my manager we decided that contacting the news outlet for a 2nd revision was unwise for two reasons.
- With the situation still under investigation we would still have to refuse comment on most questions.
- It was obvious that the specifics of the work and contract weren’t of interest to the media outlet in question, and the general details were already provided by the Ministry of Labour spokesperson.
My department has not been contacted by the media for comment. To my understanding the investigation into the accident has not concluded. I’m continuing to monitor the media for articles about the tragedy.
The support of my manager and co-workers was invaluable.