Inside the response to a social-media firestorm that engulfed Roswell Park | Local News

Inside the response to a social-media firestorm that engulfed Roswell Park | Local News

Late on the afternoon of March 27, 2020, five hours into an online firestorm engulfing Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, CEO Candace Johnson emailed a colleague who had checked in with her.

“Thanks…I have put out a statement and she is administrative leave pending investigation and most likely…I will have to fire her,” Johnson replied. “you have no idea how bad this has become.”

Johnson was referring to a senior executive, Laura Krolczyk, who had posted on Facebook a jibe about how President Donald Trump’s supporters should respond to the coronavirus.

The broad outline of what happened next is well known.

Trump partisans hammered Krolczyk online in the hours and days to come. Amid the uproar, the cancer center suspended and then fired her.

Now, emails obtained through a public-records request detail what happened behind the scenes as Roswell Park was pulled into this public-relations crisis.

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The controversy was a particular concern because the region’s leading cancer center, relies on elected officials, donors and community goodwill for public funding and private contributions.

Laura Krolczyk in the HBO Max “15 Minutes of Shame” documentary.

The nearly 200 emails show Roswell Park and its top officials trying to limit the damage from the outcry on Twitter and Facebook, fend off further news coverage and appease influential supporters who demanded swift action.

A central figure in the episode was prominent GOP operative Michael Caputo, then an East Aurora resident.

Caputo, who later joined the Trump administration before his five-month tenure ended in controversy, used his wide reach on social media to stir up outrage toward Krolczyk. The emails reveal Roswell Park’s strategy to counteract him.

And it wasn’t just conservatives who blasted Roswell Park; the messages show liberals responding with their own frustration upon learning of Krolczyk’s termination.

Krolczyk had not commented since she left Roswell Park. Her separation agreement, also obtained by The Buffalo News, requires Krolczyk and the cancer center to avoid speaking ill of each other.

However, Krolczyk did grant an interview for an HBO Max cyberbullying documentary, executive produced by Monica Lewinsky, which relates her experience at the center of a social-media maelstrom.

“I just became this comedic thing on the internet,” she said in the documentary, “15 Minutes of Shame.” “And people were just tearing me apart.”

Krolczyk, a Cheektowaga native, had overseen the regional offices for Sens. Hillary Clinton and Kirsten Gillibrand. Krolczyk said she wanted to help women get elected to office – particularly to the presidency.

She joined Roswell Park in 2010, moving up to director of state relations and then, in 2017, to vice president for external affairs, earning $226,580 two years ago.

Used to working behind the scenes, Krolczyk came under intense public scrutiny on March 27, 2020.

This was shortly after the world had shut down, a period when it was unclear how long Covid-19 would upend lives and how deadly the virus would prove to be.

But partisan lines over the pandemic already had formed.

That morning Krolczyk said she went on social media “mommy groups” to find toilet paper, a necessity then in short supply.

But frustrated by the debate over buying ventilators for Covid-19 patients, she shared an article on Facebook about the administration’s reluctance to put $1 billion toward ventilator production.

She pointedly added: “vote trump.”

Soon after, Lisa LaTrovato, director of development at Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute, responded: “But will waste more than that on a wall and space force.”

Krolczyk replied: “Trump supporters need to pledge to give up their ventilators for someone else … and not go to the hospital.”

LaTrovato responded: “I think they should be the only ones in packed churches on Sunday.”

Krolczyk then said: “They should barricade themselves in there and ride this out.”

LaTrovato replied: “Yup.”

Krolczyk signed off social media to spend some time with her children. “And when I came back, everything was just, lit up,” she said on the documentary.

“My friends were telling me, ‘It’s Michael Caputo who’s going after you,’ ” she recalled. “Then I got scared.”

Caputo was an East Aurora-based political operative known for his no-holds-barred work on behalf of the Trump 2016 presidential bid, Carl Paladino’s 2010 gubernatorial run and other GOP campaigns. He regularly appeared on cable talk shows and sparred with liberals on social media.

“Then I start to get calls and I’m getting text messages from people I don’t know. And it’s like literally my whole world is vibrating,” Krolczyk recalled. “I issue an apology right away. But the frenzy just kept growing.”

Roswell Park learned of the Facebook posts just after 12:30 p.m., when Spectrum News asked for comment on whether the Krolczyk-LaTrovato exchange – which, a reporter wrote, “was brought to my attention” – was “appropriate,” according to emails provided in response to a Freedom of Information Law request. 

Spokeswoman Annie Deck-Miller forwarded the email to Senior Vice President Laurel DiBrog, Roswell Park’s chief marketing and communications officer, who would help craft the institute’s response to the controversy.

Deck-Miller wrote: “If she deletes them, we would simply respond to Spectrum: ‘Those comments, which were posted on a personal Facebook account, have been deleted.’ ”

Just before 1 p.m., DiBrog wrote to Krolczyk, copying Johnson, the CEO: “Since we work for a major corporation that relies on federal dollars, under our current US leadership, I would prefer you to not post these kinds of posts that position Roswell Park through you as opposing President Trump. We don’t need this kind of media attention ever.”

Krolczyk replied that she had taken the comments off her personal page.

DiBrog, again to Krolczyk and Johnson, wrote: “Annie is reviewing everything you have out there and will provide a statement to the news. Candace does not need phone calls coming in from the republicans on any of our boards or major donors.”

Natasha Allard, then an integrated marketing communications manager, at 1:27 p.m. flagged several posts by Caputo and wondered if Roswell Park should directly respond to him: “He is not slowing down and keeps tagging us and he has a lot of followers.”

Caputo throughout Friday thrashed Krolczyk, LaTrovato and their employers on social media.

He tagged both Hauptman-Woodward and Roswell Park in a tweet: “Is it your public health policy to assure Trump voters are infected with COVID? Why are your senior executives advocating this sick strategy online? For the love of God, you both exist to fight disease.”

In a recent interview, Caputo said Krolczyk’s post, meant to be viewed by her connections on the site, was fair game because “there is no private on Facebook.”

The post did not name Caputo. Why did he respond to it so aggressively?

“I stand right, shoulder to shoulder, with every Trump supporter. And when she said Trump supporters should get Covid, she was saying that directly to me,” Caputo said.

His followers reacted with outrage.

Allard at 1:31 p.m.: “8-10 tweets just rolled in. I can’t keep up with these – all the same sentiment.”

DiBrog, one minute later: “Annie is drafting something from the Institute now – annie don’t’ take more than five minutes…please.”

1009463702 prospectusspeech KIRKHAM (copy)

Dr. Candace Johnson, CEO and president of Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center. 

Deck-Miller and DiBrog then crafted an apology for Krolczyk. It included: “I will work to learn from this mistake, and I commit to more productive and respectful conversation from this moment forward.”

At 2:40 p.m., a supervisor alerted the public-relations team: “I now have Michael Caputo on the line asking to speak with Dr. Johnson – please advise asap.”

Caputo said he did not talk to Johnson that day.

Joe Lorigo, a Conservative and the Erie County Legislature’s minority leader, also called Roswell Park and did speak to Johnson. He said he reached out after receiving concerned phone calls from constituents but did not demand Krolczyk’s termination.

“I have no opinion on that,” Lorigo said. “She didn’t work for me.”

By 2:54 p.m., Johnson wrote to Roswell Park’s board of directors and Alliance Foundation to reveal she had placed Krolczyk on administrative leave and asked human resources officials to investigate.

Allard, meanwhile, wrote: “It’s going to blow up even more – it was just retweeted by a major right wing influencer, Jack Posobiec, with 600k+ followers.”

At 3:02 p.m., DiBrog: “I spoke with some of my media friends – they said don’t feed Mike Caputo.”

Michael Joseph, Roswell Park’s board chair, replied to Johnson: “I am sorry this had to happen, Laura is good at her job, but this isn’t acceptable behavior from a high level executive at a publicly owned institution that depends on a great deal of public purse and goodwill to successfully pursue its mission. Mike”

By 3:14 p.m., Jenine Trzewieczynski, then Roswell Park’s major gifts officer, wrote:

“I just received a voice message from one of our major donors – Robert Stevenson – Eastman Machine Company. He himself had seen the tweet mentioned below and was outraged. He stated, ‘if this isn’t addressed in an appropriate manner – if even dismissal – they would no longer support Roswell Park.’”

Allard at 3:05 p.m. warned her colleagues: “Remove anything about roswell if you don’t want to be roped into the Caputo thing – he is searching and publicizing anyone who has roswell marketing or social in their bio.”

A spokeswoman said Stevenson was unavailable to comment for this article.

Dr. Philip McCarthy, a professor of oncology and internal medicine, wrote to Johnson at 5:42 p.m. to offer his support, noting: “(I am a Democrat BTW and while I am appalled by the Trump administration and the CDC response, asking people to die however flippant is bad for us.)”

Johnson’s reply five minutes later included the first indication that she would fire Krolczyk.

McCarthy responded it was “ugly” on Twitter: “As much as I despise Caputo for who he is and what he does, we are in a very bad situation.”

DiBrog wrote to her team at 5:05 p.m.: “Annie and I have handled all local media trying to kill the story and my team is working on monitoring social conversation happening out there.”

Roswell Park officials thought the tempest would die down. They were wrong.

At 9:41 a.m. March 28, Deck-Miller sent DiBrog a set of talking points to share with executives, board members and “influential donors.”

Soon after, The News reached out to Deck-Miller.

DiBrog wrote to Johnson at 12:50 p.m.: “We are preparing for it all to begin again with the Buffalo News story. Had to give a heads up to Laura.”

By 1:43 p.m., The News reported that Krolczyk had been fired following an internal investigation, and that Hauptman-Woodward had suspended LaTrovato.

“And then our newspaper did a story saying I was fired,” Krolczyk said. “And that’s how I found out I was fired.”

The documentary highlights numerous screen grabs of vile, obscene and threatening social media posts directed at Krolczyk.

“I was at the bottom of this avalanche, except I didn’t know I was in an avalanche,” she said. “And I was immediately so humiliated. I went to a dark place.”

Her termination generated blowback, however.

By 4 p.m., cancer center employees were reading a script to callers angered by Krolczyk’s firing that the posts were “a violation of Roswell Park’s social media policy.”

At 4:27 p.m., Cindy Eller, a senior development officer, wrote to a group, in part: “We will get past this. we are planning a communication on Monday asking people to reconsider not donating to be reminded of our mission.”

On March 30, Dr. Greg Daniel, a developer who serves on the board of directors, continued an exchange with Johnson after he objected to Krolczyk’s termination: “I thought it would have been a great teaching moment to bring unity in a time of crisis. Now you have a bunch of pissed of democrats to deal with.”

Johnson replied to Daniel on March 31: “I hear ya Greg…..this has really been a learning experience for me cause the social media response was like nothing I have ever experienced……they were threatening my family…..both republicans and democrats… son was actually afraid someone might come to our house and hurt us .”

On April 1, Fox News personality Sean Hannity devoted part of his highly rated show to the controversy.

Krolczyk said she had hoped the online storm would pass.

“Then I get a call from a friend who said, ‘You were on Sean Hannity last night.’ Oh great,” she said.

By April 3, Roswell Park and Krolczyk produced a 12-page draft separation agreement, including confidentiality and nondisparagement clauses.

Krolczyk received $240,364 in severance, required fringe benefit payments and compensation for unused vacation days and for the duration of a noncompete clause, Roswell Park disclosed.

The evening of April 15, an official alerted colleagues that Caputo had been hired as spokesman for the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

Angry emails still came in: “Your obeying complaints and orders from the right wing has led me to not support your center any longer, not for 1 second.”

Deck-Miller, on April 29, reported to several colleagues on news coverage and social media commentary throughout the controversy.

The summary of social media mentions ran for 90 pages. Highlights of news articles and blog posts ran for 64 pages. A media impact report found 138 mentions in outlets reaching an audience of 34.3 million.

Michael R. Caputo CDC (copy)

Michael R. Caputo has a wide reach on social media. 

Today, Caputo stands by his relentless criticism of the Facebook post and has little sympathy for Krolczyk.

“Whatever her company decided to do because she broke their rules, that’s something she has to deal with,” he said.

Assemblyman Pat Burke, D-Buffalo, said it was a “coordinated Republican attack,” driven by Caputo, against a former Clinton staffer who didn’t exercise the best judgment but didn’t deserve to lose her job. Burke said Roswell Park handled the situation poorly.

“It was seen by many as catering to Trump extremists,” he said. “And I let leadership at Roswell know how I felt about it.”

Roswell Park folded Krolczyk’s duties into those of its vice president of government affairs.

The cancer center declined to comment for this article beyond a brief statement: “We have always been a cancer center for everyone, and always will be.”

Hauptman-Woodward suspended LaTrovato for about a month but did not fire her.

She declined an interview request but wrote: “That was a different time, and I apologized. I’m happy that this is behind us all.”

Krolczyk also declined to speak to The News. She now works at a locally based lobbying firm.

Krolczyk, who never says the words “Roswell Park” in the documentary, told its producers she received treatment for acute post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from her ordeal.

“I feel like I was just clickbait,” Krolczyk said.

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