Body bag fiasco: why good communications avoids surprises - Dooley Communications

Grand Chief David Harper sure made the most of things this week. He’s the one who led the symbolic protest against Health Canada over the body bag fiasco.

Health Canada apparently sent shipments to some remote Manitoba reserves that contained body bags in addition to hand sanitizer and other items. Harper found out about it and decided to make the most of the situation. He brought the body bags to the Health Canada office in Winnipeg and marked the boxes “return to sender.”

He told Canada AM that the reserves in question have been awaiting emergency preparedness kits in anticipation of more H1N1 flu cases, but have yet to receive them. Instead, they got body bags.

The emotional and political impact of this story was immediate. Opposition leaders postured that the government was betraying its callousness. The Minister of Health apologized and promised an immediate investigation. The story has led the national news cycle replacing the Prime Minister’s visit to Washington and Parliament’s avoidance of a fall election.

The entire episode is an example of why ongoing, open communications with stakeholders is vitally important.

I have no way of knowing why Health Canada has apparently been slow in delivering the kits Chief Harper referenced. I suspect that body bags may well be an appropriate item to deliver to communities that are expected to face a higher than average incidence of severe flu this fall. Preparedness isn’t always sunshine and light. The problem, I believe, was less in the delivery than in the surprise.

Communicate clearly with your stakeholder groups. Tell them what’s coming, listen to their response, remind them what’s coming and what you heard… and then, once done, tell them what you just did.

Health Canada deserves the headache it’s getting. Harper had every right to exploit this situation. His aggressive use of the media here will help his communities get the medical supplies they need sooner.

I recommend that Health Canada start its investigation with its communications protocols.

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