S.C.: E-mail Shows PR Strategy Involving Charleston Fire Investigation

December 11, 2007

An e-mail sent by a South Carolina workplace safety official details the agency’s public relations plan to downplay the release of an investigation into a furniture store fire that killed nine firefighters, according to a published report.

The Post and Courier of Charleston reported in last week’s newspapers that the state agency considered releasing the investigative report near Labor Day to “cut down on calls, questions and additional stories,” according to an e-mail the newspaper obtained through a a Freedom of Information Act request.

The plans did not go into effect. The report was released Sept. 20.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration Communications and Government Affairs director Jim Knight wrote in the e-mail that Gov. Mark Sanford’s office wanted no news conference or fanfare on the findings. A Sanford spokesman disputed that contention.

“Our advice was to handle this report on the violations just as you would handle any other report,” spokesman Joel Sawyer said. “That was the extent of our conversation.”

The e-mail Knight sent to agency administrator Dottie Ison said, “They want us to downplay this as much as possible.”

“No news conference. They want no fanfare,” Knight wrote.

Knight acknowledged Thursday the governor’s office provided no instructions on the report’s release. “Those instructions are mine,” Knight said. “Looking back at it, it’s not the best characterization of what the governor’s office instructed. In my haste, I didn’t do a good job of characterizing the conversation.”

In the e-mail, Knight explained the report would be released to the media at 3 p.m. to reduce calls and follow-up coverage. “Next day is Friday, and then we have a three-day holiday weekend to let this die down,” he wrote.

The e-mail doesn’t explain why the state would want to downplay media coverage. Knight said Thursday it was not part of OSHA’s mission to promote its work. “We don’t do fanfare and news releases,” he said.

The report that was released accused the Charleston Fire Department of willfully ignoring firefighters’ safety, and the city was fined $9,325. The state agency and the city announced an agreement this week in which the city admits no wrongdoing fighting the fire, but will pay $3,160 in fines.

Michael Parrotta, president of the South Carolina Professional Firefighters Association, said the agreement and the e-mail shows OSHA wasn’t committed to change in Charleston.

“It’s all politics,” he said. “That’s not the response we want from an agency that is supposed to be protecting not only firefighters but all the workers in South Carolina.”

Information from: The Post and Courier,

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