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Global News Investigates: Emails reveal attempt to control social media posts after Strathcona County explosions

Strathcona County internal emails
Wed, May 8 - Emails obtained by Global News through a Freedom of Information request reveal, for the first time, what went on behind the scenes the night of and days following the explosions in the county parkade. The documents indicate disagreement when information would be released to the public and an attempt to control social media. Julia Wong has part 1 of this Global News investigation.

Update: The mayor responded to the Global News investigation late Thursday afternoon, read the update here. Click here for part 2 of this story.

Editor’s note: Prior to publication of this story on May 8, 2019, Strathcona County council had called for an external review of all aspects of the county’s response to the November 2018 explosions as part of its standard procedure after such an event. This story has been amended to reflect that.

A “communications fail.”

That is how some residents and communications consultants describe the aftermath of two explosions in a public parkade in Strathcona County last November.

The criticisms come as Global News reveals, for the first time, what happened behind the scenes at the county the night of the explosions and in the days following the incident.

Internal emails, obtained through a Freedom of Information request, between council, the executive team and the communication team, reveal arguments over releasing information to the public and an attempt by the county to control posts on local Facebook groups.

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READ MORE: RCMP provide update on Sherwood Park explosions, motive remains unknown

“It could have been so much better handled, I think, for the residents — for, frankly, the region,” said former Strathcona County councillor Fiona Beland-Quest.

RCMP say the explosion inside the county hall parkade was deliberately triggered by suspect Kane Kosolowsky, 21, before he died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. It forced the evacuation of hundreds of people in and around the county hall at the time and shut down parts of the community complex for months. The motive continues to remain unclear.

Little information was released by the county to residents in the hours following the incident, and the majority of details were not made available to the public until close to 24 hours after the incident unfolded.

Two explosions

RCMP say the first explosion in the parkade happened at around 6:30 p.m. on Nov. 6, 2018, and the second explosion — which was not deliberately set but rather triggered by the first — took place at around 8:15 p.m.

More than 400 pages of internal emails were released to Global News after a Freedom of Information request.
More than 400 pages of internal emails were released to Global News after a Freedom of Information request. Julia Wong/Global News

The emails show the mayor repeatedly asking for a statement to be released by the county, however one would not be for several hours.

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“I’m sure you are working on a preliminary statement,” writes Mayor Rod Frank at 8:45 p.m. to a senior communications advisor.

“Social media exploding so need to get something out,” reads another email sent by the mayor at 9:03 p.m.

“RCMP are coordinating all messaging… We will have our [communications] team ready with a message [for] you to review and send out publicly tomorrow morning first thing,” reads an email sent at 9:52 p.m. from Chief Commissioner Gord Johnston to the mayor.

“Need something tonight, there are rumours, including of gunman. Need to fill void,” responds the mayor at 10:05 p.m.

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An email from Councillor Robert Parks at 10:57 p.m. states “a brief statement from the mayor saying he is aware of the situation may be needed.”

With still no statement released, Parks emails Mayor Frank again at 11:41 p.m. saying, “Still think you need to put out a statement.”

“Supposed to have it by midnight. Will be very high level,” responds the mayor at 11:42 p.m.

Just after midnight, the county’s first statement is released. The statement, which emails indicate was approved first by the RCMP, calls the incident a “police matter” and asks the public to avoid the area. Few other details are released.

The following morning, the emails appear to show little urgency in communicating further with residents.

At 6:58 a.m. on Nov. 7, 2018, a communications advisor states, “The plan is to meet with the mayor at 10:30 this morning. We can definitely chat about media update at our [meeting].”
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“Per my email a couple minutes ago, I don’t think this is soon enough to issue an updated statement from him. It should come out first thing this morning,” responds Johnston.

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The absence of information is noted by Councillor Bill Tonita.

“Looking forward to an update today,” Tonita writes at 5:50 a.m. the following day. “With limited information from the county, I have learned more from social media and the school websites.”

Ultimately, another statement was not released to the public until close to 24 hours after the incident; a RCMP news conference held the morning of Nov. 7, 2018 saw the mayor staying mum about details.

‘Way too late’

Beland-Quest and Carla Howatt watched the incident unfold from unique perspectives. Both served as one-term councillors in Strathcona County and are the co-founders of How to Be Consulting, which provides government relations consulting services and offers communication workshops.

WATCH MORE: Continuing coverage of the Strathcona County explosions

Both women gave the county a failing grade when it came to how it handled the emergency situation.

“[The county] lacked communications. It was a communications fail,” Beland-Quest said.

“There was a lot of time for a lot of panic to set in. As you know, nature abhors a vacuum, so when there is no information, people start creating their own information.”

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From a consulting and communications perspective, Beland-Quest said it was frustrating to watch how the county managed the situation.

“I understand it was a police investigation and that is fine. But still, I think it would have been more reassuring for residents to have someone come out… and say, you know, ‘This is a police investigation but we’re on it. We’re here for you,’” she said.

READ MORE: Sherwood Park explosions caused $14M in damage

Howatt, who worked in communications for approximately 20 years before becoming a councillor, said there should have been more dialogue with the community.

“I believe [the mayor] should have done a video statement, at the very least, the night it happened… People needed to see his face. They needed to hear his reassurance from an emotional level that everything was okay,” she said.

Howatt said she defended the county online the night of the explosions, saying she understood that it takes time to gather good information. However, she was disappointed it took until 3 p.m. the day after the explosions for a full statement to be released.

“It was way too late. Even when [the mayor] did make a statement, he didn’t reassure anyone. I know he tried to but it seemed as though the goal was to get people to stop talking about it,” Howatt said.

“The first press conference the mayor gave, again it seemed as though that was their focus – was to get people to stop speculating, don’t speculate. Well, that’s like saying, ‘Don’t breathe’ to a human being.”

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Howatt said it would be negligent if the county did not review its communications strategy in light of the incident.

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‘We didn’t know what was happening’

Travis Harder, 29, has lived in Strathcona County almost his entire life. The night of the explosion, Harder was at home when he saw Facebook posts about a police presence at the county hall.

“When I have people I care about that live there, that makes me worried about them, especially when I don’t know what’s happening,” he said.

Harder agrees the communications from the county to residents was not handled well.

“They didn’t really give that much information. They gave just enough information to fuel speculation and then they said, ‘Well, we don’t want people to speculate. We don’t want people to make assumptions or gossip about it.’ But they weren’t telling us what was happening,” he said.

READ MORE: Strathcona County staff return to work after explosions in Sherwood Park parkade

Harder said there is a simple reason the public should have been given more information from the county.

“Overall, I think it would have stopped a lot of rumours.”

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Harder said the email exchanges obtained by Global News make him feel better that the mayor was trying to get a statement out to the community.

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“But it does make me wonder why there was such a struggle to get any kind of communications out there.”

Facebook monitoring

The day after the explosions, the county’s communications team assembled to monitor social media comments.

The internal emails indicate staff kept an eye on rumours, questions about why so little information was disclosed to residents and posts about personal safety concerns.

As the consequences of the lack of communication became clear, the internal emails reveal attempts to control what was posted on local Facebook groups, such as Sherwood Park Talks and Asking Strathcona County.

“[Can] we ask the admins… [to] Automatically delete all speculation and negative comments? They are really perpetuating the fear and anger,” wrote a communications specialist at 12:47 p.m.

“I want to handle this properly so it doesn’t look like the County is trying to muzzle the public.”

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The emails reveal the county approached several Facebook groups with the following message:

“I work for Communications for Strathcona County, and we are trying to reduce the amount of speculation about the incident at the Community Centre as it is not helpful to the police investigation. Would it be possible to make a statement such as: Strathcona County is communicating and will continue to provide updates as information is verified by the RCMP. As such, the County asks people to refrain from speculating on what may or may not be happening…We would also appreciate if you would consider removing speculation comments.”

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Later in the day, the county received a strongly-worded response from a Facebook group administrator:

“Do you believe that Strathcona County [personnel] in charge of communications has handled this well? You can certainly post what you want, but better have thick skin to deal with people who are scared, pissed off, emotionally wrecked and a whole host of other emotions… By all means, put yourself out in front of this mess. It’s been handled poorly, like most things from Strathcona County.”

The emails indicate the communications team decided not to respond to the Facebook group administrator.

‘Free and democratic country’

Beland-Quest was shocked to hear about the communications team trying to control messaging on local Facebook groups.

“They wanted to influence the public,” she said, with disbelief.

“We live in a free and democratic country. People have the right to ask and speculation happened because [of] the void [of information].”

Harder said the county should have expected how people were going to react in the absence of information – by speculating.

“We don’t know what’s happening. We’re scared and we’re not being told anything,” he said.

Mayor responds

In response to the struggle over getting a statement out to the public, Frank said there was a lot going on.

“We’d rather get out information in a measured pace that’s accurate as opposed to sending out information that’s inaccurate and we have to bring [it] back. That’s a very difficult task,” he said.

Frank was asked why the county did not release any information that same night, and he said the focus was on communicating with residents in the immediate area.

Global News questioned the mayor on why the county did not communicate with residents outside the immediate area who were watching the incident unfold on social media.

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“We were asking them not to speculate, but if there were safety issues, we would have had a general communication,” Frank said.

Frank, when told the county’s response was being called a “communications fail,” stood firm on how the county acted.

“We have a professional communications department here that we take up-to-date training and that we would continue… We would do the same thing over, in terms of working with the RCMP,” he said.

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Frank said he and his council called for an external review of the county’s response as part of their standard procedure after such an event. However, he said no changes would be made to the county’s communication strategy in specific relation to the events of the explosion, though he said that strategy is continually updated.

Global News pressed Frank that former councillors said it would be negligent not to specifically review the communications strategy.

“We have a professional communications department. They’re continually making sure they’re keeping up with best practices. Whether or not Nov. 6 happened or didn’t happen, they’re continually updating how they respond so we’re up-to-date,” he said.

Frank was asked whether he was aware that messages were sent to local Facebook groups to remove speculation on their pages.

“Look, I’m all for free speech and we all are in this community. As I said, we just wanted to make sure the proper facts were getting out so I stand by our communications team,” he said.

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Frank was then asked whether he agreed with the approach to control the Facebook posts.

“No I don’t agree with that. What I’m… we obviously are for free speech. This is a free country. We’re asking folks to check back and get the facts,” he said.

But when Global News said the documents show the communications team wanted speculative messages to be deleted and how that appears to be muzzling, Frank denied that.

“I don’t think there’s any intention to muzzle people, no,” he said.

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“So why did it happen in the first place?” Global News asked.

“I think it’s just a concern that improper information was getting out there. I think there’s a role to say, ‘Look, please check with us if you’re going to talk about what happened. We have the facts. You might want to check with us before you send stories,’” Frank said.

Cpl. Ronald Bumbry with the Alberta RCMP said the police force was unable to comment on the incident as it remains an open investigation.

Email tips in confidence to reporter Julia Wong at julia.wong@globalnews.ca

Coming up: Questions swirl around the county’s leadership and emergency preparedness in light of the November explosions. Global News brings you part 2 of its investigation into the Strathcona County explosions on Thursday, May 9.

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