The tragic murder suicide in Kamloops, B.C. on October 15, 2002 precipitated a public relations blunder of ministerial proportions. After receiving a disciplinary letter from his superiors, a disgruntled employee returned to his workplace at the provincial Ministry of Water, Land and Air Pollution armed with a gun. He took five hostages, and soon shots rang out.
Meanwhile, before anyone knew what was going on inside the office, the B.C. government went into damage control. While the police were attempting to make contact with the gunman, Solicitor General Rich Coleman spoke with radio and TV reporters to emphasize that the situation wasn’t connected to the massive public service layoffs imposed by his government.
"This is a situation where it's a personnel matter, where it's not related to any of the management, to government… it's not a layoff or workforce adjustment situation," Coleman said.
And he said all this before anyone knew that three people were dead. Such a thoughtless and poorly-advised strategy.
The police were quick to express their concern, saying the timing of such public comments could have escalated an already tense situation. RCMP staff sergeant Grant Learned said Coleman’s remarks were "extremely counterproductive" and "fatal to our interests".
Of course, the strategy backfired. Within days of the incident, the media reported that the shooter, Richard Anderson, was suffering from stress brought on by government cutbacks. Would they have chased down this story, and would the sources have come forward, if Coleman hadn’t made his comments? Possibly, but not probably.
By going public to defend its own interests before the smoke had even cleared around this tragedy, the B.C. government revealed itself as a heartless and inept lot, worried more about "spin" than the safety of its own employees. And by raising the spectre of layoffs before the media did, and before it was appropriate to do so, they unwittingly brought even more attention to bear on the issue.
The ministry should have kept quiet, especially in the early hours of this incident, while working quietly to help employees cope with the crisis. This way, if approached by the media, the ministry could have given the right answer, and done so honestly. They could have said: "Our priority right now is the safety of our people, and the well being of the families affected by this incident."