Ottawa·Exclusive

NCC scrambled to manage PR damage from 'heavy-handed' lemonade stand shutdown

Internal emails obtained by CBC News show how the NCC's communications team struggled to deal with an impending public relations nightmare after a junior conservation officer shut down a lemonade stand run by two little girls.

CEO suggested reminding public NCC conservation officers also rescue lost hikers, prevent suicides

Sisters Eliza and Adela Andrews set up a lemonade stand to raise money for summer camp, their father said. (Idil Mussa/CBC News)

When two young sisters set up a lemonade stand along a popular Ottawa cycling route one sunny Sunday morning earlier this summer, little could they have known they would soon make national headlines, setting off a flurry of internal communications reaching the highest echelons of the National Capital Commission.

CBC News obtained 258 pages of email correspondence under the Access to Information Act, including messages between NCC staff, directors and members of the public in the week after the story broke.

The documents offer a behind-the-scenes look at how NCC communications staff strategized to control the fallout, how top NCC officials fretted over the organization's image and suggested spinning the story, and how at least one board member turned the blame for what was quickly becoming a public relations nightmare on the news media.

Angry tweets

The emails began shortly after CBC news published the story on July 3, 2016, when an NCC conservation officer told seven-year-old Eliza and five-year-old Adela Andrews they had to pack up their lemonade stand because they didn't have a permit to do business on NCC property along Colonel By Drive. 

Angry readers soon took to Twitter to voice their outrage at the apparent heavy-handedness, grabbing the attention of NCC communications staff. 

Cédric Pelletier, 4:55 p.m. "Looking into the matter? 4 tweets on evil NCC ... Check our accounts."

Nicholas Galletti, 4:49 p.m. "The damage is done. Unless we joke about ourselves there is nothing we can say to make this better."

Cédric Pelletier, 5:06 p.m. "I would agree Nick. Damage is done and I think we need to bite this bullet. Take a look at the keg of lemonade they had behind their stand, we can't let this type of operation run every Sunday. We could say that the girls were too successful so we had to shut down their stand...lol (if we joke about it)."

Eliza and Adela Andrews sold lemonade without a permit on July 3, 2016, beside Colonel By Drive. (Submitted by Kurtis Andrews)

CEO concerned

Minutes later, the NCC's CEO saw the story and emailed his chief of staff, concerned that "the NCC officers appear heavy-handed."

"And yet, if anything unfortunate happened to these children on NCC lands there would be criticism of another kind, and perhaps actual liability," wrote CEO Mark Kristmanson to Anne Ménard.
CEO Mark Kristmanson expressed concern the NCC would appear 'heavy-handed' for shutting down the girls stand. (NCC)

"I'd like to give our [conservation officer] the benefit of the doubt and assume he was gentle in dealing with the youngsters," Ménard replied. "The question is would our rules apply differently if the kids were 18 yrs or 27? They wouldn't."

On July 5, by which time media outlets across the country had picked up the story, Kristmanson followed up with Galletti, the NCC's director of strategic media.

"I am concerned that the lemonade story is casting our officers in a negative light and may affect morale," Kristmanson worried.

"Let's think of ways to communicate their important service to the community: rescuing lost hikers, swimmers, saving wildlife in urban settings, preventing vandalism, and even in a few cases averting suicides. This can be another positive story to include in our response."

Complaint from Bikedays coordinator

In a public statement, the NCC explained that one of its junior officers ordered the shutdown only after a member of the public complained about the stand, which didn't comply with federal land use rules.

According to documents obtained by CBC, the complaint may have started with a member of the public, but it was the coordinator of the Nokia Sunday Bikedays program who insisted conservation officers do something about the small business.

"I spoke to the officer involved in the situation," wrote senior conservation officer Pierre-Luc Denis, who investigated the incident.

"The Sunday Bike Day coordinator ... was adamant that this situation was a breach of the contractual obligations she was holding with the NCC," Denis wrote.

"On a regular day, unless the presence of such a stand would have caused an imminent threat to public safety, it would be unlikely that anyone of my staff would have initiated an intervention relating to a situation like this." 

Slow news day?

"Good grief," one board member responded to the growing furore over the story, and its high placement on many news websites.
NCC board member Kay Stanley. (NCC)

"It really must have been a slow news day in many media offices!" wrote board member Kay Stanley. "I am always surprised how the mainstream media loves to reinforce their own agenda which attempts to portray Ottawa as a rules-bound place with excessive bureaucracy.

"Perhaps as we train or orient our staff we should reinforce the common sense rule and the question, 'How will this look on the front page.'"

Stanley then congratulated the NCC spokesman who bore the brunt of public anger over the story by granting interviews to explain the NCC's position: "Congratulations to Nicholas [Galletti] ... He managed to handle an awkward situation in a professional and humane manner."

NCC offers apology to lemonade stand sisters

6 years ago
Duration 4:38
NCC's Nicholas Galletti offers apology to lemonade stand sisters.

Not everyone was convinced by the NCC's response, however. Among the documents are letters to the NCC from the public, including one from a CBC viewer angered by Galletti's interview.

"[Galletti] really should have been wearing tap shoes because he danced about with top notch skills of a political 'spin doctor.' Not once did he answer a direct question. Not once did he admit an error was made in the lemonade stand fiasco ... Does the NCC think the public is so stupid that we didn't notice its utter failure to admit that a simple mistake was made?"

Girls' dad thanked NCC

The documents also include a note from the father of the girls after they received a special permit to operate their lemonade stand to raise money for charity.

"It's been great working with you as well," wrote Kurtis Andrews.

"The self-esteem boost that the girls have received from the experience is remarkable — I'm sure that they will carry it with them for the rest of their lives."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ashley Burke

Senior reporter

Ashley Burke is a senior reporter with CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. Have a story idea? Email her at ashley.burke@cbc.ca

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