Veterans Affairs has reviewed how it approves videos for posting on social media “to ensure rigour and accountability,” following an embarrassing incident last May that saw Minister Lawrence MacAulay apologize for a Second World War tribute that “erroneously” included footage of German, not Canadian soldiers.
Documents obtained by CBC News under the Access to Information Act show multiple staff, including managers, copied on messages to review scripts, share drafts and offer feedback during the vetting process for several commemorative videos produced last spring.
But none of the bureaucrats on the email chain managed to spot the difference between Nazi and Canadian uniforms in the video commemorating Victory in Europe Day (VE-Day).
“While the existing approvals process is sound, it was not properly applied in this case, ultimately contributing to the error,” concluded a briefing prepared for the department’s deputy minister (and a former chief of the defence staff) Walter Natynczyk.
“Staff deeply regret the error,” it continued. “They see this as an opportunity to review and re-establish internal roles and responsibilities.”
CBC News reported on the video bungling on May 9, after sharp-eyed history buffs who saw the video on the department’s Twitter account noticed footage of Nazi soldiers laid over the minister’s tribute to Canada’s war effort.
The eagle on the uniforms, the shape of the helmets, the cut of the uniforms: Anyone familiar with the imagery of the Second World War could identify several shots early in the video that were not Canadian soldiers or their Allies, but the German soldiers they were fighting.
Someone in the department saw posts talking about the Nazi images and a manager quickly had the video deleted from Facebook and Twitter.
“Folks, apologies for the late evening note,” reads an email from Natynczyk sent to seven staff at 10:17 p.m. “There seems to be some angst within [Minister MacAulay’s office] about D-Day historical footage on our site.”
‘A completely unacceptable mistake’
By the next morning, Conservative MP Michael Barrett was chirping that “Liberals marked VE-Day by thanking Nazis for their sacrifice.”
MacAulay apologized in the House of Commons.
“This was a completely unacceptable mistake and the video was removed immediately,” the minister told question period. “I and the people involved are very concerned, and we are taking steps to make sure this does not happen again.”
Emails released to CBC News show officials scrambling to do that.
By May 14, Natynczyk had signed off on a new approvals process and more staff training.
Ministerial videos for posting on Facebook or Twitter are now vetted in two stages. First, draft videos need to pass by two team leaders, two other managers, a “divisional fact-check,” the director of public affairs and a senior director of “strat-digital.” Then there’s a “formal approvals” process, which includes two director generals, the deputy minister’s office — which is a new step, the document notes — and the minister’s office.
A flow chart laying out the six-step approvals process for communications products and media responses was included.
The documents show many of these steps were in place already. This screw-up was not the work of some untrained intern going rogue on social media — quite the opposite.
“We followed the process for the video scripts, however, missed some formal steps in our haste to film, produce and post the VE-Day video,” Sarah Brown, the acting director general of communications, wrote the morning after. “That’s where we will tighten going forward.”
“Some steps were missed in the case of the final video,” Natynczyk’s office was briefed, “most notably the fact-check review by the Commemoration Division.”
The 42-second tribute featured MacAulay speaking on camera as well as publicly available archival footage sourced from the YouTube channel of Library and Archives Canada, according to the briefing.
“The big push for these always is good B-roll over minister,” MacAulay’s press secretary, Alex Wellstead, wrote to departmental staff, as he requested six videos last April. “You’re all super awesome and so great, and I truly, madly, deeply appreciate everything you do.”
The documents show the team settling on only four commemorative videos to mark different occasions, including VE-Day, the anniversary of the surrender of Nazi Germany on May 8, 1945.
On May 6, a link to a draft VE-Day video was provided to several managers, leading up to its May 8 deadline for posting.
“Looks good!” the manager of the communications division replied.
‘A learning opportunity’
In some respects, the approval process was thorough. “At the :16 mark, the closed caption is off-script by one word,” another vetter on the email chain noted.
But while staff went back and forth with a number of critiques — things like saying “service members” instead of “soldiers” for a more inclusive script, or adding a call to action at the end, for viewers to, among other things, “share why remembrance is important to you on social media” — no one seems to have flagged the Nazi uniforms.
The department met its deadline to produce the video, and prodded John Embury, MacAulay’s director of communications, for his final approval early on the morning of May 8.
“Approved,” he replied.
Later that afternoon, a senior communications editor at the department also signed off: “The videos sent earlier have been QC’ed. Nothing to flag,” she wrote.
By May 10, the investigation had zeroed in on where things went sideways.
“Just found out the footage in question was of German prisoners of war captured by Canadians. Taken from a Canadian Army newsreel,” Embury wrote his colleagues. “I like the initiative, but without context…”
Going forward, managers vowed that “the right questions will be asked at sign off … No assumptions.”
“Staff regret the error and felt disappointed,” another email said. “This was a learning opportunity.”