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Update on breastfeeding picture: ‘It’s a personnel matter’ response fails another fire department

Most of us familiar with the fire service probably knew it was not an issue of a fire department taking a stance against breastfeeding when the news came out that a Las Cruces, New Mexico firefighter was under investigation for the photo, below, taken of the firefighter’s wife and baby. But being anti-breastfeeding was the impression left in New Mexico and around the world when only one side of the story was available to reporters over the last 10 days or so.

The reason it was one-sided is that when a reporter for KFOX-TV tried to find out why Firefighter Mike Lopez was under investigation, “A department spokesperson said because this is a personnel matter, they cannot discuss any aspect of it.”

“It’s a personnel matter and we can’t discuss it” is one of the most common and useless responses you will hear from a government official. It often, as it has here, ends up causing more trouble than it’s supposed to prevent. And it’s usually a lie, because almost all agencies end up talking about personnel matters when it suits them to do so.

NM Las Cruces breastfeeding
Tara Ruby Photography

In this case, for more than a week, the Las Cruces Fire Department has been beaten up for supposedly taking a stance against breastfeeding. In today’s digital world, where your reputation can be destroyed at the speed of light (as my friend Gerald Baron has often said), delaying talking about what you will certainly end up talking about is just stupid.

Fire departments can and do talk about personnel matters. Even the ones that at first say they won’t. Don’t forget the other recent example of the Stafford County Fire & Rescue Department in Virginia. They ended up talking about a personnel matter that was still under investigation after similarly catching grief from around the country and the world.  There are countless other examples from the fire service.

In the Las Cruces case, a city official did finally talk, last week, about the personnel matter that “they cannot discuss any aspect of.” But because the spokesperson didn’t come clean about what was really going on, it only muddied the waters.

Now, we finally have some light shed on the story from the Las Cruces Professional Fire Fighters Association.

Las Cruces Sun-News:

“Mr. Lopez is not facing termination or suspension and his discipline is currently in the grievance process,” the union — Las Cruces Professional Fire Fighters Association — stated in a news release issued Wednesday afternoon.

The union did not address the specifics of Lopez’s discipline, but it stated in the release, “We want to be clear that the content of the photo is not the reason for the disciplinary action.”

The union further suggested that the investigation was “related to a policy regarding the use of the Las Cruces Fire Department brand.”

The Sun-News was unable to reach city officials for comment on the policy.

The use of the gear with the department shield and identification, along with the possible concern about the potential toxin exposure to the baby, were two possibilities brought up in the STATte911 initial Facebook post on April 4. What would have been so bad if a Las Cruces Fire Department official mentioned either or both as areas of concern when a reporter initially asked about this story? What would be the downside of a spokesman saying then that this was not about breastfeeding? Who would have been harmed?

An important part of the job for fire chiefs and public information officers is to protect the image of their department. Saying we don’t comment on personnel matters will likely do just the opposite of what you hope it will do.

Think of your image these days as being something very similar to lightweight construction. It’s going to burn easier and spread faster. Collapse and even a conflagration are likely if you don’t put it out quickly. There is little room for error and no time for tactics that don’t address the problem. “It’s a personnel matter and we can’t talk about it” doesn’t address the problem and is a tactic that rarely works.

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