AHS CEO loses his high-paying job because of a cookie

That was one expensive cookie...

In November, Alberta Health Services President and CEO Stephen Duckett was leaving an urgent meeting about a crisis in provincial emergency room care when he was approached by a reporter from CTV. While the camera was rolling, the reporter walked alongside Duckett and asked him to respond to criticism from a government health official.

Clearly not wanting to be interviewed, the aptly-named Duckett just kept walking...down a flight of stairs, along a sidewalk and across the street. The persistent reporter and camera operator kept pace with Duckett, continuing to ask him to comment. Instead of responding, however, he repeatedly blew them off by saying he was 'interested in eating my cookie'. At one point, he actually waved his cookie (oatmeal-and-raisin in case you were interested) in the reporter's face. By the way, the video has been viewed 300,000 times and counting in the past month.
To have Alberta's health chief declining a media interview on a hot button topic because he was eating a cookie didn't go over well with the media, the public, or the Alberta Health Services Board. Five days after the incident, Duckett was canned from his position. Board chairman Ken Hughes acknowledged that the cookie incident played a role in the decision to terminate Duckett. "His ability to carry on and conduct his role as chief executive officer was compromised by his current circumstances - one element of which was that incident," said Mr. Hughes. "The board had clear confidence in him up until that point. But the dynamic changed. The atmosphere changed."

To make matters worse, Duckett's 'Cookie Incident' generated hundreds of embarrassing headlines across Canada and the U.S., harming his reputation and that of his employer. The incident was even mocked online in videos like this hilarious mash-up of Duckett and the Cookie Monster from Sesame Street. 

The Lesson: While it's an extreme example, the 'Cookie Incident' highlights what we tell people in our media training sessions -- that poor media relations skills can cut careers short. Being ambushed by a confrontational reporter isn't fun. But handled properly, you can emerge with your job, reputation and your organization's messages intact. Duckett would have been better served to address the reporters with a brief statement such as:

"This is an important issue. And I can assure you it's one that Alberta Health Services takes very seriously. And while I regret that I'm not in a position to provide you with an official comment on such short notice (I'm actually late getting to another meeting), I'd be happy to speak with you afterward. Here's my card...please call my assistant/communications director and we can schedule an interview for later today. Thank you so much for your understanding."

A response like this would have bought Duckett enough time to prepare for the interview, polish his key messages and finish eating his cookie in peace. And even if CTV had aired the footage of him giving this response, he'd still have a job today. Instead, he was became flustered and was ultimately undone by the only prop at his disposal - a cookie. 

But don't cry for Stephen Duckett. As part of his termination settlement, he's entitled to about $680,000 in severance pay, courtesy of the taxpayer. 

Any way you cut it, that's a lot of dough.

Connect with Warren Weeks on Google+