11/18/2014 05:31 EST | Updated 01/18/2015 05:59 EST

HMCS Whitehorse recall prompted navy commander to take charge of PR plan

After ordering HMCS Whitehorse home from an international naval exercise last July following allegations of crew-member misconduct, the head of the Royal Canadian Navy took control of communications about the incident, fearing delays if the Department of Defence were to handle it, according to documents obtained by CBC News.

Even so, some of Vice-Admiral Mark Norman's strategy was blocked by the defence minister's office, according to the documents released under Access to Information.

Norman ordered HMCS Whitehorse home in early July following incidents involving three crew members that included allegations of drunkenness, shoplifting and sexual misconduct. 

The ship was participating in an international joint training exercise known as the Rim of the Pacific, or RIMPAC. It was docked in San Diego when the incidents occurred.

The incidents were seen as a turning point by the navy, and in an email Norman called them a "wake-up call." They also prompted him to launch an internal review of the navy's policies and procedures.

Sources told CBC News that review is in its final stages. The navy expects to go public with the results and reports in about three weeks.

Messaging considered critical

In an email on July 9, five days before the story broke in the media, Norman wrote that messaging was critical: "This is our problem and we will lead our way out of it."

Norman was already working on what's called a NAVGEN, a general memo that is released to the entire navy, about the incident. The email shows Norman was already concerned public affairs at the Defence Department would not be able to respond to the looming story quickly enough.

"My sense is, as we have seen in recent incidents in the past, the PA [Public Affairs] machinery won't be able to respond quickly enough. We will therefore need to be postured to respond ourselves by the end of the week," he wrote.

The navy ended up releasing the memo internally on July 14, at which point it was leaked to the media. 

The email trail shows how Norman and his team agonized over the wording of the memo and also went to battle with the defence minister's office over whether to make someone available to speak about the incident.

Putting a face on the crisis

In a July 15 email, Norman wrote, "I want us to prepare (if req'd) to put a face on this."

Norman chose Commodore Craig Baines, the new commander of the Canadian Atlantic Fleet, to take on that task — the same man now leading the internal review of the navy's policy and procedures.

"He has the context and the tasking. We can present him as the guy. Also he can speak to the incidents themselves and put it in context," Norman wrote. "Can we get MNDO [Minister of National Defence Office] to approve."

That request turned out to be problematic.

Brig.-Gen. Kevin Cotten, director general of public affairs, replied that the minister's office wanted to think about Norman's request.

An hour later, Cotten wrote again to say the minister's office was "not prepared to approve an interview/spokesperson today." He went on to write the office may reconsider the request the following day, even though Cotten had pushed for later that afternoon.

Cotten said they will monitor the media and "re-attack" if there is a change in the way the story was being covered.

In a statement to CBC News, a spokeswoman for the defence minister, Johanna Quinney, said, "members of the military are available for media interviews and briefings on a regular basis. Over the past 12 months, National Defence has facilitated over 600 interviews and 3,500 media inquiries."

The navy eventually designated a spokesperson for the incident involving HMCS Whitehorse, but it was the head of navy public affairs, Cmdr. Hubert Genest, not Commodore Baines.

Eventually, both Norman and the Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Tom Lawson ended up being satisfied with the media coverage of the Whitehorse incident.

In a July 15 email to Lawson, Norman said "this is the messaging we needed to send. Reporting is balanced and appropriate."