I have started writing about the killing of Robert Dziekanski on numerous occasions. I always scrapped my drafts because I was worried that my anger over the killing and the subsequent cover up, would bias my analysis. So some more time has passed and here are some thoughts.
RCMP brand management
When we think about the RCMP we often think about dutiful horses and honest men with mustaches. The Canadian Mounties have always had a pretty solid brand. The brand elements range from their unique outfits and the buffalo on the crest to the history and mythos that remains alive in the stories told about them and their brave deeds. It is also interesting to note just how much Canada’s branding both amongst Canadians and internationally relies on the images and stories of the RCMP.
The tragic case of Robert Dziekanski has proven to be a challenge for the brand managers in the RCMP. Type “Robert Dziekanski” into a search engine and you’ll get a bazillion hits. But what is also interesting is that there are so many relatively new articles on the web. Take this article, for example, about the fact that the RCMP officers are still being paid despite their wrongdoings.
Dziekanski first hit the news in October of 2007. Here is one of the first written articles that was produced by the CBC about the situation. The language that reporters used to describe the event was important. It would set the frame through which Canadians, and the world, would first understand the issue. So the soundbites from the RCMP were crucial from a media management perspective. The initial frame was roughly that: 1. there had been a tragic event involving a foreigner, 2. Tasers had been deployed twice, 3. police officers had done their duty and followed procedure, 4. The foreigner had died, 5. the foreigner had been acting violently, 6. there was a toxicology report pending because substance use was suspected.
These bits of information were strategically chosen to present the role of the RCMP in a positive, or at least neutral, light. And twenty years ago, this would have probably been sufficient to protect the brand of the RCMP. Some articles would have gotten printed. Some interviews would have hit the six o’clock news. And some radio listeners would have lamented the tragic situation.
But brand management has become a little trickier in our modern context. It’s three and a half years later and articles are still being published about what is generally regarded as a deep injustice. And this presents an interesting challenge to a national institution that maybe hasn’t quite come to grips with the new context in which they’re attempting to manage their brand.
Initially everything seemed to be going okay for the RCMP messaging. Often I would hear people referring to the “incident”, not the “killing”, or they would say that Dziekanski had died after being shocked, not killed by the RCMP intervention. So the initial frame went a long way towards neutralizing the role of the RCMP in the tragedy. Admittedly, even today you can hear people say that Dziekanski was “killed by tasers used by RCMP”. So there are still some long-term benefits accruing by the initial framing of RCMP spokespeople.
But there are far more disadvantages to the slightly outmoded approach by the RCMP. And these disadvantages have been making the public concern about Robert Dziekanski case significant and lasting in a way that is hurting the brand value of the RCMP. Here are what I see as the main factors that the RCMP haven’t properly grappled with.
The chances of someone getting videotape of police mis-handling someone twenty years ago is incredibly unlikely. My dad had a Super8 but there’s no way he would have wasted his precious tape on, what he would have probably seen as, a distasteful public moment. But photo, and video and audio devices now abound.
This is important, partly, because it has been the modus operandi of the RCMP to assert their authority and take the higher moral ground and therefore call into question the testimony of anyone challenging their own account of an incident. And the strength of the RCMP brand has historically made this work. But an RCMP lie can’t trump video.
2. Random access of data
When the news came to us via the radio or the television or in print, the average citizen could not go see what so-and-so said eight months ago. Taken together with the general predispositions and leanings of the news media the net result of this was a short public memory for lying. We still grapple with a short attention span for the truth, but the fact that people can still access the reports and interviews and soundbites from 2007 is, I think, a really important factor in modern speechifying and modern brand management. The RCMP lied repeatedly in an attempt to gloss over facts they didn’t want out in the hearts and minds of Canadians and the internet makes this something that is very difficult to run from. The slogan “time heals all wounds” makes more sense if you don’t have easy access to old facts or lots of facts all at once. Of course ultimately the truth still needs to become part of the public discourse. Despite the entitlement of the RCMP, the public has a right to know.
3. Increased distrust
This third point is even more speculative. But here it is. I think that slowly but surly the RCMP brand has been quietly eroding and the public has less willingness to turn away from injustice and incompetence. Less trust means less sympathy, more scrutiny and greater accountability. This hasn’t happened slowly. It’s taken decades for the Canadian public to wake up to this. The RCMP has an inflated sense of entitlement and you get the sense that they think they are too important for criticism.
You know, it’s not clear to me, even now, that the Taser killed Dziekanski. I watched the tape and to me it looked like Dziekanski could have been killed by positional asphyxation – the knee to the neck cutting off the blood supply to the brain. I don’t think we’ll ever really know. I’m still angry. I know I’m not alone. But regardless of the precise reason, Dziekanski was killed by those four officers. I guess the fact that there has been no accountability for those officers is troubling.
If four unskilled citizens had walked in to that room and killed someone acting out, they would have been charged with manslaughter, regardless of their “good intentions” or the tools and methods used. But dress four men up in uniforms, and give them specialized training in the use of force, and for some reason they are less accountable. Which is odd.
If I hire a qualified mechanic to fix my truck and they destroy it, they’re liable. If I ask my buddy to fix my truck and he destroys it, I’m liable. The police officers that killed Dziekanski were professionals and they should be more accountable than four average citizens; not less.
The officers failed to properly assess and respond to the situation effectively. Then they used too much force. Then they failed to administer CPR.
Then the officers lied. Then their superiors and media relations officers lied. They lied about the cause of death. They lied about Dziekanski’s character. Then they lied about the video.
Then they lied about lying.