In the days after January’s fatal bus crash, the City of Ottawa kept firm control on every snippet of information that might possibly reach the public.As with most sudden tragedies, there was confusion at first. Understandably, city officials struggled to learn what happened as quickly as possibly, while calls for information flooded in.But on that Friday, and through the following days, they also kept a sharp focus on “messaging,” on deciding what the public would be allowed to know and how that information would reflect on the city administration.The result was a series of centralized decisions from the mayor’s office on down, which restricted what the public learned — except for leaks that the city tried to prevent.
Ottawa police at the crash scene.
Ashley Fraser /
Meanwhile, city staffers were tasked with providing upbeat messages about support for the frightened, the close co-operation between emergency agencies, and the safety record of OC Transpo.After media organizations tried and failed to get answers, this newspaper submitted a freedom of information request for emails to and from the Public Information and Media Relations office in the five days after the crash.The resulting 985 pages of documents show a series of steps that kept information bottled up for days.It began early.• The crash at Westboro station happened around 3:50 p.m. on that Friday. Bystanders could see serious damage and everyone knew there were injuries. Less than an hour later, city hall knew there were three dead and at least 17 injured (a number that later grew to 23). But when the spokesman for Ottawa paramedics asked whether he could announce that passengers had been killed, the media office told him not to.
Ottawa police cordoned off the area around the Westboro transit station with police tape and cruisers.
Ashley Fraser /
Instead, city hall sat on that information until a formal news conference at 7 p.m., when Mayor Jim Watson announced it to the assembled media. Until then, the city stuck to its official message that “there were serious injuries,” even after reporter Shaamini Yogaretnam tweeted the number of fatalities in the late afternoon.• City manager Steve Kanellakos wrote an email to all employees that evening. It offered help for anyone who was emotionally shaken by the crash and added two other points: City hall flags would be lowered to half-mast. And no one was to talk to the media, except media relations staff.The evening’s final note from media relations sums up the limited scope of information: “The only thing we are confirming to media is that there are 23 injured, and 3 fatalities (at this time),” it says. It continues: “Decline all interviews this weekend,” and send reporters to police for information. As many of the early questions were about OC Transpo operations, this cut off answers for the first two days after the crash.A TV station asked to interview John Manconi, general manager of OC Transpo. The city said no.• Around noon on Saturday, Kanellakos approved key messages to be made public. The central one was that the city could say nothing about the crash while police were investigating. Watson’s office added that the mayor would do no interviews.By this time, it was clear that what reporters and the public were asking was not on the same page as what the city wanted to say. City hall said it could not discuss the cause of the accident, but that’s not what reporters were asking.One reporter asked whether the city would pay the bus driver’s legal fees, and asked some questions about what was covered by privacy legislation. No comment, said the city. It referred the questions to Ottawa police, who knew nothing about the driver’s legal fees.
Ottawa police have the area around the Westboro transit station cordoned off with police tape and cruisers Saturday Jan. 12, 2019, while the collision is investigated
Ashley Fraser /
This newspaper asked some questions about the bus driver’s training and record, along with procedural questions about standard OC Transpo protocols for handling traffic collisions and how drivers are trained. We didn’t get any answers at first, but the media office warned the city’s legal department that we were asking. Answers did come a few days later.• By now, Watson, Kanellakos and Manconi were involved with the media relations staff in “developing a media strategy.”It resulted in a four-page list of “key messages” that Manconi was chosen to deliver when the new week began, approved in advance by the mayor’s office.These include solemn notes about the tragedy, but also feel-good messages: “I’m proud and humbled to see the outpouring of condolences and displays of support all over the city,” and, “It’s this spirit of caring that makes it possible for us all to keep going after a tragedy like this one.”The four-page list makes clear that he is not to discuss the investigation or the driver.OC Transpo employees also received orders about what to say. If the public asked them about safety, they were to repeat “speaking points”: All buses have a strict maintenance schedule. All buses are inspected twice a year and get preventive maintenance.The speaking notes single out double-decker buses, telling employees to pass on the message that they meet the requirements of Transport Canada. As for the crash: “We can’t comment on an ongoing police investigation.”• The media strategy also says that only three people may answer questions: Chief Charles Bordeleau on police matters, Manconi about transit, and Dr. Vera Etches from Public Health about mental health.
Police Chief Police Chief Charles Bordeleau (alongside Staff Sgt. Peter Jupp from the collision investigation init, right), updated the media about the ongoing investigation into the Westboro bus crash. Bordeleau was one of only three people permited by the city to speak about the crash.
Julie Oliver /
That was bad news for CBC, and possibly for the paramedics. A reporter asked to speak to paramedics and their dispatcher about the experience of working through the bitterly cold night to rescue trapped passengers. No, said city hall. Only the three spokespersons could speak.With one exception, as it turned out. Another reporter wanted to do a “light, good news” piece on Max, a service dog with the paramedics that helps trauma victims. That was approved, with strict instructions not to discuss the collision.Related
The media planners discuss mental health support a lot. They felt that co-ordination of mental health services between Ottawa and the province is “valuable messaging for the media to disseminate.”• This newspaper asked for a copy of the accident report for another crash involving the same driver, weeks earlier. Denied. (The request was later denied again through freedom of information.)What’s the speed limit on the Transitway at Westboro Station, another reporter asks. It’s 50 kilometres an hour, says a reply — which is copied to 13 city staff who are all keeping an eye on messaging.• In the end, even a simple and kind message for a shaken city was pulled into the complex message-approval process. Issued by Mayor Jim Watson and city manager Steve Kanellakos, it invited anyone with problems in the aftermath of the crash to phone city hall for help.But first, the draft message needed a five-step approval process:“Confirming where this message will be posted.” (An email notes there is a draft communications strategy in a Word document.) Running the message past the legal department. Sending it to the graphic design staff. Having it translated. Getting approval from the mayor’s office. And after all that is done, there’s approval needed from Kanellakos and one other email@example.com/TomSpearsALSO IN THE NEWSCity will recoup fraction of money lost in email scam targeting treasurer, council learnsPlastic bags, dog feces allowed in green bins as of July 2Crown drops assault charge against Ottawa woman who won appeal of elder abuse conviction