It's the kind of thing that can dampen your day; the local equivalent of hearing those frightening words, “Excuse me Mr. Wilson, 60 Minutes is in the lobby, and they have some photos they would like to ask you some questions about”.
It happened a few days ago to the folks at Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation. Columbus' 10TV “Watchdog 10” team received a tip about an Ohio BWC employee who had been accepting collect calls at her desk from a prison inmate, leaving the state with a $200 tab. The news channel contacted the BWC, and asked them to review their phone bills, which revealed the employee had logged almost 6 hours on these personal calls. This apparently had gone entirely under the radar at BWC.
That's got to be embarrassing. The issue probably isn't that the employee was taking collect calls from a relative in prison- no, that could probably happen anywhere. It is the fact, that Skippy the wonder reporter is the one to tell you about it, which has to sting a bit.
Clearly someone knew what was happening, though. That anonymous tip didn't come out of thin air. Was it an inside job? Did someone at the agency try to resolve it, only to have their complaints fall on deaf ears, thereby forcing them to go outside the agency?
We'll never know, but one thing seems certain to me. The agency appears, at least in my view, to have been caught flat footed in all of this. The video associated with the report shows a seemingly shell shocked spokesman who looks like he lost the coin toss (I'm not going out there, YOU go out there!), mumbling something about turning the matter over to HR and being good stewards of the public dollar. The report goes on to say that managers will review their phone bills more closely, and make sure that “each employee knows their business phone is for business only”.
They couldn't pay me to sit through that half day seminar.
The Ohio BWC, like any state agency, will always be under additional scrutiny, which makes handling these issues when they pop up even more critical than in the private sector. I would suggest to them that the best defense in these situations is a good offense. It's Ohio, after all. Have they learned nothing from Woody Hayes? Imagine if the spokesman had stormed out of his office, wagged his finger at the camera, shouted, “Hey, didn't YOU ever take a collect call from Granny when SHE was in the slammer?”, and then punched the reporter right in the face. That would certainly have changed the dynamic of the story; so much so that no one would even remember the collect calls ever happened.
We can take away several things from this story. The first thing is, I know nothing about handling public relations for a state agency, and the second, I will not be hired as a crisis consultant anytime soon by the Ohio BWC. We also learned, however, that checking all the details is critical, and that even the most obscure issues can trip an organization up. And that goes double for a public agency under the constant scrutiny of all those they serve.