DC Fire & EMS Chief Kenneth Ellerbe and IAFF Local 36 president Ed Smith were both interviewed on The Politics Hour on WAMU-FM yesterday by show host Kojo Nnamdi and Washington City Paper's Loose Lips columnist Alan Suderman. Among the items discussed were the allegations by department spokesman Lon Walls that a January 24 protest by firefighters was a racist act. Walls has been suspended with pay for five days.
“I think we have to be very careful when it comes to the issue of race, and that’s why Lon was placed on administrative leave, just to give us all time to breathe a minute,” Ellerbe said. “We never want to interject race in an area or an environment where you already have some perceived challenged or even hostilities. That just exacerbated the problem.”
Walls, he continued, “was speaking on his own personal account, but still he is a government official at this point. … We have to have a higher standard for the way we respond personally and professionally.”
In addition, there was more discussion by Ellerbe and Smith over the directive that came out a week ago warning firefighters to behave at Mayor Vincent Gray's State of the District address with the chief continuing to say this was a problem caused by a lieutenant alligned with the union.
DC Fire & EMS Department spokesman Lon Walls has been placed on administrative leave by Chief Kenneth Ellerbe following Walls' characterization of a January 24 protest by firefighters as "a racist act". The comments from Walls came on his personal Twitter feed and Facebook page and were taken down on Monday after he was questioned about the postings by Washington Times reporter Andrea Noble. Andrea Noble also has details of Walls' suspension:
D.C. Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe suspended department spokesman Lon Walls with pay in order allow tensions within the department to “cool off,” said Pedro Ribeiro, a spokesman for D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray.
“Things were getting heated; things were getting personal,” Mr. Ribeiro said, adding the suspension likely would last “a couple days.”
Mr. Gray said Wednesday he did not support the characterization made by Mr. Walls.
“I didn’t write it. I wouldn’t have said it,” Mr. Gray said. “I don’t think it’s helpful.”
Noble is also reporting that Paul Quander, deputy mayor for public safety and justice, is backing the statements from Walls that a directive issued Saturday warning firefighters they would be punished if they acted up at Mayor Gray's State of the District address Tuesday night, did not come from management. IAFF Local 36 president Ed Smith and various news reports indicate the order was issued through the chain of command to firehouses and was entered into company journals throughout the city. Smith told Noble, "The guys didn't make that up".
In addition, Washington City Paper's Alan Suderman, who writes the column Loose Lips, has posted an article looking at the battle that has been brewing between Chief Ellerbe and Local 36. Suderman begins his article reporting that Tower 3, first due at The White House, with the assignment of positioning the bucket at the living quarters of the President, has been out of service because of mechanical problems 500 of the last 1000 days. In addition to looking at serious apparatus maintenance issues, Suderman gives an overview of the various skirmishes that have occurred since Chief Ellerbe took over the department 13 months ago.
The problems with the truck that’s supposed to save the president are small pieces of ammo in a growing war between Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe and the fire union, along with a vocal group of Ellerbe critics in the department. The battles run from the trivial, like what logo firefighters can wear on their clothing, to the more serious, like what’s the best schedule for working firefighters and who is responsible for equipment problems like those of Tower 3’s. Throw in accusations of racism, a touchy subject for a department with several past discrimination lawsuits, and you’ve got a recipe for a potentially explosive situation.
Suderman, who was unable to connect with Chief Ellerbe for an interview, highlights some of Chief Ellerbe's history with the department, including the arrangement that allowed Ellerbe to be the chief of a Florida fire department while still on the rolls at the DC Fire & EMS Department.
The article closes with a quote from Phil Mendelson, who chairs the City Council committee overseeing the department:
He says the complaints he’s currently hearing from firefighters echo the same complaints he’s always heard, regardless of who is in charge.
Super Bowl Sunday and Dave is trying to be relevant with a football tie in. It’s about the owner of the Washington Redskins, Dan Snyder. A Super Bowl Champion, no doubt. Certainly not his team since he’s owned it. But Snyder himself is a World Champion. Dan Snyder reigns supreme when it comes to uniting an entire city and region against you. And his most recent moves in the fields of public relations and image management give strong indication that the trophy should be Dan’s to keep.
Anyone who has heard me speak in recent years, or ever dealt regularly with Dave Statter the TV reporter, probably knows my views on dealing with a news organization that has published negative stories about you or your organization. I have a simple message: If you are going to complain about news coverage, complain about the facts of the story. Make sure it isn’t really just the bruised ego or hurt feelings of you or your boss doing the talking. Trust me, it’s good advice.
I never had the chance to share those words of wisdom with Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder. But even if I did run in those circles, history shows it’s advice Dan probably wouldn’t listen to.
I don’t know how much play this is getting beyond the Beltway, but here in Washington over the last few days you can’t go a couple of minutes without reading or hearing another negative assessment of Dan Snyder. These darts lobbed at Snyder are not about the dismal showing of Washington’s football team. Instead it’s about one of the worst examples of how to deal with negative news that we’ve witnessed in a long time. Pull up a seat, there’s a lot to learn from this master of turning a terrible public image into a horrendous one.
It’s as if Snyder purposely pasted “kick me” signs all over his body. Right now, everyone is obliging and kicking him hard. There’s no end in sight. Often, when a public figure is beaten down like this, at some point they might become a sympathetic figure. I don’t see that happening here. Just read the hundreds of comments attached to the articles I’ve linked to and you will see what I mean.
This latest chapter started on November 19 when Washington City Paper’s Dave McKenna wrote an article called The Cranky Redskins Fan’s Guide to Dan Snyder. McKenna is a talented sports columnist who has never been afraid to question authority and the status quo. Snyder’s antics and ethics have long been a favorite topic of McKenna’s.
But the free, alternative paper McKenna works for is not what you would call a major player in the Washington media world. Certainly not something a powerful businessman like Snyder needs to worry about. It’s as if McKenna has been constantly barking away like a wiener dog at the feet of a giant and poweful Great Dane (I would have used Clifford the Big Red Dog here, but comparing Snyder to Clifford might ruin the animated canine’s image for generations of children). This article caused Snyder to do more than just shake off the tiny nuisance and move on. Suddenly Dan Snyder saw McKenna as a pit bull that needed to be euthanized.
Snyder’s plan for handling this was about as subtle and well thought out as the much publicized Redskins’ stadium policy of October and November 2009. That one had security people trashing fan’s signs brought to Fed Ex Field because Dan’s feelings were hurt by a very strong anti-Snyder sentiment following a decade of impulsive, bone head moves in running the team. Management tried unsuccessfully to get the public to swallow the company line that the signs were suddenly a safety issue.
I covered that story and talked to legendary DC sports PR guy Charlie Brotman. Charlie, one of the nicest guys around, and rarely publicly critical of anyone, had some advice for Snyder. Essentially, Charlie told Dan to stop wasting his time by trying to control what people think. These actions were further destroying Syder’s reputation with the public. Instead, Charlie urged Snyder to start reaching out and connecting with the fans. Pretty solid advice.
If it’s advice Dan Snyder heard, he ignored or forgot it by November 2010 when he came up with the plan to deal with McKenna. Instead of contacting the columnist or his editor about what Snyder thought were great factual errors, Dan, always the businessman, went right for the money. The general counsel and COO for the Redskins, David Donovan, wrote a letter to the investment company that owns the parent company that owns the Washington City Paper. Besides listing all of the ways McKenna’s article harmed Snyder, the letter made clear what damage would come to Atalaya Capital Management if this wasn’t dealt with to the satisfaction of the Redskins owner. And it is this portion of the letter, that stands heads above the rest of the Snyder PR circus, and has Washington abuzz. Here it is:
Dan Snyder’s public relations policy may not be a smart one, but it sure gets high marks for consistency. Just like destroying the fan’s signs when they had bad things to say about Dan, Snyder threatens to crush the news media. And this threat to sue has now become reality, again making headlines.
So, why have I spent all of this time on a blog dedicated to fire and EMS talking about the owner of a football team? Because, whether it’s Dan Snyder and the National Football League or a one pumper fire department in the middle of Snyderville, USA (my apologies to the folks of Snyderville, Utah) your image and how you tend to it matters. The mistakes Dan Snyder continually makes on the large scale are often made on the small scale by fire and EMS departments and the people who run them.
These are basic errors. Ones that any crisis management firm or good PR person or PIO would try to avoid. I’m sure Dan Snyder can afford the best in the business. It’s obvious that, like a few public safety bosses I’ve met through the years, Snyder and his ego think they know far better than the PR pros.
Dan Snyder and the Redskins made sure that a relatively little read article blasting the owner got enormous play, not just in Washington, but around the world. So much so that the City Paper’s server crashed on Wednesday. How often have I cautioned about turning a simple one day story into something much bigger?
Remember this: When your public relations policy is based on the fragile ego of a Dan Snyder, a fire chief or a mayor, you will lose every time.
If the reporter or columnist significantly gets the facts wrong, absolutely get out and fix that with the correct facts. This is something quite important in the digital age where information, accurate or inaccurate, is rapidly repeated over and over again on numerous sites. During a radio interview on Thursday, the Redskins COO David Donovan even acknowledged that very point in justifying their offensive against the City Paper saying, “In the Internet age, when something gets published, and it gets linked to and linked to and linked to — and you can go around the Internet and see the number of times people have linked to that column from the November City Paper.” But as the Post’s Dan Steinberg points out, that article is now getting a hell of a lot more links than it did originally (including now on the ever popular STATter911.com) and no one is really correcting any facts.
If the goal is to set the record straight, wouldn’t a better tactic have been to take the Washington City Paper up on its offer to get the facts out in a Dan Snyder penned guest column?
If it’s the opinion of a columnist you want to change, that isn’t going to happen by heavy handed, thuggish threats (which in Snyder’s case illustrates McKenna’s thoughts about the owner much better than what the sports columnist wrote in the first place).
Settling a score by trying to get a reporter or columnist fired just to keep the boss happy rarely works (again, you better have some facts to back it up). The same goes for the often used tactic of freezing out or not talking to a reporter who doesn’t play the way you want them to. All you will do is ensure your message isn’t heard with the coverage provided by that publication.
The short version of the response from Snyder and the Redskins is to argue that McKenna is out to get Snyder, that McKenna attacked Snyder’s wife, a breast cancer survivor and spokeswoman (an unfounded claim against McKenna that absolutely no one can sense of), and that a City Paper picture of Snyder as the devil is antisemitic.
Let me be so bold as to offer Dan Snyder, or even a fire or EMS chief who may be equally as sensitive, a different way to go. You’ve dug yourself a big hole that you are trying desperately to get out of. You have failed to provide any shoring and the walls are coming in. Stop burying yourself further by attacking the news media with nothing to really back it up except your hurt feelings. Ditch the ego. Write an open letter to the public and have a press conference telling everyone you’ve made lots of mistakes through the years, but this one tops them all. Take a lesson from Gene Weingarten and do this with a sense of humor. Make sure that sense of humor is directed at you. Beg for the public’s mercy, telling them you have learned your lesson and will do better in the future. Go the Hollywood route and tell everyone you will be in rehab for a few months. Then find a Betty Ford type clinic for egoholics and control freaks. You will know you have the right building because the doorway is extra tall and wide to enable those oversized heads and egos to enter.
In short, heed the words of my friend and former colleague Brett Haber, “The truth that Snyder fails to grasp is that the only way to stop being portrayed as such an unlikable figure — is to stop acting like one.”
Some light being shed in Bourne: The police chief now finally says Lt. Kelli Weeks, seen in a CapeCodOnline photo, was spotted at a drug surveillance site. But there is conflicting information about whether there was ever a criminal probe of the former charity calendar Ms. October 2008. There is also new information on Lt. Weeks' husband. Deputy Chief Paul Weeks has now been taken off of full duty status and is on administrative leave pending a preliminary hearing on a rape charge. Click the image for the latest from the Bourne Fire Department.
DC fire investigators get blasted by the city’s own lawyers: The latest people taking a shot at the DC Fire & EMS Department are the lawyers whose job it is to defend the department in a lawsuit over the April, 2007 fire at the Georgetown Library. Washington City Paper’s Jason Cherkis has the emails from the Office of the Attorney General wondering why fire investigators can’t produce the notebooks and other documents that have long been requested in the case. In one email, a city attorney writes, “This is a 13+million dollar law suit. Enough for DC to hire many firefighters, or lawyers for that matter (or avoid layoffs or furloughs). Is there nothing that can be done to get this information?”
Another city lawyer wrote, after hearing that notebooks don’t exist, “If indeed there are no notes or diagrams, both for the purpose of trial preparation and to respond to the motions for sanctions, can the investigators explain why they did not follow the national standards? Is it that they weren’t trained on these standards, or they forgot, etc.?”
Canary in a coal mine: The sensitivity of birds to carbon monoxide is why canaries were used as crude CO alarms in mines. It is apparently why 23 out of 24 birds in a Rockville, Maryland house died during a fire early yesterday morning. Click here to read and watch the story.
Fire chief accused of fondling police dispatcher gets pension: Former Truro, Massachusetts fire chief E. Thomas Prada resigned in March, 2008 shortly after he was accused of grabbing the breasts of an on-duty police dispatcher. Prada had been the part-time chief for 20-years and a call firefighter with the department for 49-years. A retirement board ruling now allows Prada to keep his pension. Read more.
At 4:00 this morning, firefighters in Frederick County, Maryland responded to the Exxon on Route 85 near I-270 and found a vehicle, fuel pump and a man on fire. Click the image to read the story from WUSA9.com.
Almost 40-year battle over LODD: An interesting story how a 26-year-old Santa Barbara County firefighter collapsed and died in 1970. His widow has now gone to court to in an effort to reverse the retirement board’s ruling that the death was not service related, even though Mark Common’s name is on the California Firefighters Memorial.
Despite strong firefighter opposition, Menino gets record 5th term in Boston: Read the details. Union president vows to continue the fight. Click here.
Three cops among seven injured in house fire: Five people were helped from the burning home in Lynn, Massachusetts Tuesday night. Read the story. Watch the story.
Four firefighters hurt at garage fire: A variety of injuries as fire spread to two garages in Pelham, New York. Here’s the story.
This house in Modesto, California was raided last week because of a pot growing operation. Now the place has been torched. Click the image to read and watch the story.
Mayor outlines plan to pay back OT to firefighters: Louisville’s mayor explains how he is coming up with the $45 million to settle that years long suit over firefighter’s overtime. It is expected that 800 former and current firefighters will share in the money with pay-outs ranging from $100 to $120,000. Read more.
L.A. geyser: No fire engines disappearing on this one, but nice pictures of a water main putting on a show. Click here.
A call for 9-11 video: Greg Jacobs with Siskel/Jacobs Productions has asked me to pass along this request for video-
The producers of the Emmy-winning documentary 102 Minutes That Changed America are seeking amateur and professional video from 9/11 in and around Washington, D.C. for a forthcoming National Geographic Channel documentary. That includes footage of buildings being evacuated, man-on-the-street conversations, home movies of people responding to the news, saved phone messages, etc.—anything that helps illustrate not just what happened, but how the day felt. If you have or know of any such material, please email email@example.com.
Fiery truck crash on I-95: Click here for details of an overnight wreck in Fairfax County Virginia near the Lorton exit. Video shot by Rob Barrett.