Saturday, 18 February 2012

When Bad Communication Kills: Remembering Valerie Wolski and the Nord-Ost Tragedy

Valerie Diane Wolski
Valerie Wolski (Source: Edmonton Journal)

Thursday marked the one-year anniversary of the death of Valerie Wolski, the Alberta mental health worker who was strangled to death by her patient, Terrance Saddleback. She was working alone, providing care to Saddleback, an enormous, severely developmentally challenged man who was prone to psychotic rages. Saddleback was initially charged with manslaughter, but the charge was dropped as he was unfit to stand trial.

In a recent op-ed article in the Edmonton Journal, columnist Paula Simons chastized the Alberta government's Persons with Developmental Disabilities (PDD) central region board for failing to inform the Canadian Mental Health Association (the organization responsible for which Wolski worked) of Saddleback’s violent history. The board had previously determined that the man presented an 'extreme' and 'catastrophic' risk and that he should never be left alone with a care worker, especially a woman. Unfortunately, nobody told the Canadian Mental Health Association - and Valerie Wolski paid the ultimate price for bureaucratic secrecy.

You would think that after such an egregious communications failure that the government would have implemented an immediate audit of its communications processes. Shockingly, nothing of the kind happened. In June of this year, Occupational Health and Safety also issued an immediate safety order, compelling the central region of Persons with Developmental Disabilities to change its practices. This week the board announced that it was appealing the findings, with a three-day appeal hearing scheduled to begin on February 28.

The case of Valerie Wolski is a textbook example of how bureaucratic secrecy and poor crisis communications are a ticking time-bomb. While PDD argued that the agency had an obligation to uphold privacy laws, the Wolski tragedy clearly demonstrated gross negliegence on the part of a government agency specifically set up to prevent this sort of tragedy. Moreover, PDD further compounded the situation by obfuscating, deflecting blame and completely disregarding the Canadian Mental Health Association's concerns. These organizations are invariably well staffed with well-trained communications officers. Are these people even being allowed to do their jobs?

The tragedy of Valerie Wolski also reminded me of another upcoming anniversary - of a tragedy that should go down in history as an example of crisis communications gone horribly wrong.

When The Show Didn't 'Go On'

The monument carring names of victims of Moscow theatre siege (AFP Photo / Denis Sinyakov)
Nord-Ost Siege Memorial (Source: RT News)
The date was October 23, 2002 and the scene was the Dubrovka Theatre in central Moscow, located about four kilometers southeast of the Kremlin. The show playing that night was the popular historical musical theatre production Nord-Ost (German for 'North-East'), a play based on the popular novel The Two Captains by Veniamin Kaverin, which tells the story of the 1913 discovery of the arctic archipelago of Severnaya Zemlya in 1913.

Shortly after 9:00 pm as the show was well into Act II, between 40 to 50 heavily armed guerillas identifying their allegiance to the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria stormed the theatre and took 850 spectators and performers hostage. The siege lasted for four days before a squadron of Spetsnaz (Special Forces) under the command of Russia's Federal Security Bureau (FSB) raided the theatre and pumped a mysterious chemical agent into the building's air conditioning system. All of the combatants were killed in the operation, which a spokesperson for the Special Forces lauded as "our first successful operation for years."

The tactic used to bring the siege to an end was unquestionably brilliant - and one that could well have ensured that every single bystander other than the few executed by the Chechen militants survived. Unfortunately, the special forces, whose organizational structure and approach to communications still hearkened back to the Soviet era, refused to disclose the chemical properties of gas in question to the Moscow physicians tasked with reviving the unconscious theatre-goers. In fact, the exact nature of the 'knock-out' gas they used is still unknown, although it is believed to be either fentanyl or 3-methylfentanyl. At least 129 hostages never woke up.

The Nord-Ost hostage crisis is largely remembered as a turning point in Russia's dealing with the ongoing insurgency in Chechnya. The crisis led Putin's government to tighten its grip on the renegade region, a move largely applauded by the Russian people. It also saw increasing repression of Russia's independent media, which had been critical by the government's heavy-handed approach to the situation. Some independent journalists, including the late Anna Politkovskaya, alleged that the FSB itself had been involved in the siege, seeing it as an opportunity for a more hardline approach in Chechnya. Four years later, Politkovskaya was assassinated in her apartment block.

The story that was largely lost, however, was the communication breakdown between the FSB and the Moscow-area medics who were left scratching their heads as to how to revive the unconscious patients being brought to them from the theatre. Had a crisis communications plan been in place (and employed), the special forces would have been able to feed the gas into the theatre, wait for everyone to lose consciousness and then separate the terrorists from the hostages and whisk the latter group off to hospital - giving the doctors ample warning of the situation. As it happened, physicians managed to revive some patients with the drug naloxone, but it was too little, too late.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate!

The cases of Valerie Wolski and the Nord-Ost hostage crisis are similar in that they both resulted from a failure to communicate vital life-and-death information from one organization to another. And while the breakdown in Moscow in 2002 was unquestionably more egregious, it is at the same time somewhat more understandable given that the organization at the centre of the controversy was a direct descendent of the KGB and was still steeped in Soviet-era paranoia and secrecy. When it comes to the Alberta government of 2012, there's really no excuse.

The anniversary of Valerie Wolski's murder is yet another reminder of the importance of the work I do as a professional communicator. When communications break down, people and organizations get hurt - and sometimes people get killed. In the case of a country like Russia whose bureaucrats and government institutions remain in large part products of an authoritarian political culture, it's understandable that fostering new cultures of communication is a tall order. But in this part of the world we could and should be doing a whole lot better at communications.

In the meantime, the appeal hearing regarding the Canadian Mental Health Association's allegations begins on February 28. If you live in Alberta, I encourage everyone to write to George VanderBurg, the minster in charge of the Persons with Developmental Disabilities program, as well as the Minister of Human Services Dave Hancock, to push the agency to change its communications policies to ensure that nothing like this happens again. Read this blog dedicated to Valerie Wolski for more information - as well as for downloadable letter templates.

Good communicators can do a lot - but bad policy will leave even the most capable and energetic communications officers straightjacketed. For that kind of change it takes action and public engagement. And in a civil society like ours, that's everybody's job.

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