Embattled ex-radio show host, Jian Ghomeshi. Photo by Matthew Filipowich, via Facebook.
UPDATE: Navigator has released a statement confirming it no longer advises Jian Ghomeshi saying "regrettably, the circumstances of our engagement have changed and we are no longer able to continue. No further comment will be issued.' Additionally Ghomeshi's PR company of 15 years Rock-It Promotions has also announced it has cut ties.
When it was announced that Jian Ghomeshi and the CBC had parted ways, Ghomeshi did something strange for someone about to go through a public relations crisis. He published a 1,500-word explanation of the events (or his version of them) on his Facebook page. Though it's pretty normal for someone facing sexual assault accusations to be the first get their version of the story in the public, a lot of the letter was really, really weird. It was weird because the pertinent legal points-the accusation of sexual assault and his declaration of innocence-were wrapped in a salacious, detailed narrative about Ghomeshi's sexual preferences and how he was allegedly fired unfairly by the CBC for being into weird sex stuff. For someone who just hired Navigator Ltd., it seemed like an odd choice. As writer (and occasional VICE contributor) John Semley tweeted, "at least Jian's getting his money's worth from that crack PR team. his pre-mea culpa reads like a skim of fucking Gone Girl" (sic).
While it's impossible to say whether the overly-detailed Facebook post was one of the reasons Navigator cut ties with Ghomeshi, out in the real world, outside of the bubble of progressive politics, where Gone Girl is a bestselling book and a blockbuster movie, Ghomeshi seemed to successfully frame the debate in a way that was favourable to him. "It doesn't matter if it's a celebrity or a company, because when a crisis hits, the media is automatically interested," says Kalene Morgan, who teaches media relations at Toronto's Humber College, and previously worked in media relations for Price Waterhouse and a subsidiary of TransCanada Pipelines. "You want to tell your story honestly, you want to tell your story fully, and you want to tell your story quickly." Ghomeshi's side of the story has been put into serious doubt, first by the Toronto Star story that revealed the full extent of the accusations against the radio host, and then by a subsequent story in which four more women have come forward with more disturbing stories. Ghomeshi's version of the story doesn't seem particularly full or honest at this point, but Ghomeshi did tell his side of the story quickly, which had a positive effect, at least initially.
"Social media has changed how crisis communications happens. It sped it up," Morgan says. "But at the same time, it's allowed [Ghomeshi] to get his message out directly." The Toronto Star article detailing allegations of sexual assault had came just hours too late. After posting the note, fans responded with messages of support and Ghomeshi gained 60,000 "likes" before the next set of allegations came out. On Monday, Jian Ghomeshi was trending on Facebook along with a blurb that said "Ex-CBC host says he was fired because network felt his 'sexual behaviour was unbecoming.'" It mentioned nothing about the three woman who had come forward with assault allegations. "If you look carefully at that Facebook post, it has been very well-written," Morgan says. "He put specific details in there because the thing is, if you don't put at least some information in, then a vacuum exists-media will try to fill the vacuum and theories will try to fill the vacuum." This initial positive response to Ghomeshi's post was due to the way he framed the story: it wasn't about sexual assault, it was about the CBC's ethics.
Yesterday, all of that changed again when four more women came forward to detail their alleged abuse at the hands of Jian Ghomeshi. Given the horrific extent of the alleged crimes and that Ghomeshi has already branded one of his accusers as a "jilted ex-girlfriend" while laying the blame for the whole situation on a vindictive "freelance reporter" (probably referring to Jesse Brown), it seems only fair that we apply the same level of scrutiny towards Ghomeshi's actions and the reputation of Navigator Ltd., the expensive crisis management firm that he hired.
Of course, the fact that Ghomeshi hired an expensive PR firm doesn't mean that he's guilty, but his response to this crisis deserves at least as much scrutiny as will be placed on the women who come forward to discuss the abuse they took at the hands of a powerful media figure. What is Navigator Ltd.? And how did they establish a strong enough reputation to command a reported $600-an-hour fee? Navigator, which bills itself as a "leading high-stakes public strategy and communications firm," is where high profile Canadians go when they face a public relations crisis. In addition to crisis management, they also promise "reputation recovery." Basically, if you're a Canadian public figure and you've done something bad, or if you've been accused of doing something bad, Navigator is there to spin the media response in your favour.
At the head of Navigator is Jaime Watt, who came to prominence by leading Mike Harris and his "Common Sense Revolution" to election success in 1995 before resigning from the government over a past conviction for fraud. Unsurprisingly, Navigator Ltd.'s team includes a number of former Conservative (or PC) campaign managers and communications experts. Randy Dawson, one of the managing principals of the firm, helped lead Alison Redford's Progressive Conservatives to victory in 2012, but the firm also helped cast a shadow on Redford's troubled tenure when it was revealed that her government had granted two "sole-source" contracts to the firm, which was against government policy.
Former Ontario attorney general Michael Bryant hired Navigator soon after he was charged with running over and killing bike courier Darcy Sheppard. Photo via Facebook.
Most of their clients appear to be either corporate or political, including the Calgary Board of Education, who came under fire for spending $240,000 on the firm in the face of budget cuts. Ironically, the media trail suggests that Navigator can be as much of a liability as an asset, but the behind-the-scenes work the firm does to shift opinion is rarely seen by the public, which is kind of the point. "We don't talk about ourselves," a principal at the firm told the Globe and Mail, "Nothing much to say." They also aided Brian Mulroney when a public inquiry began looking into the former prime minister's relationship with arms lobbyist Karlheinz Schreiber.
In terms of high-profile criminal allegations, Navigator was hired by former Ontario attorney general Michael Bryant when he was charged with running over bike courier Darcy Sheppard in Toronto. Initially, the news reported on a high-powered lawyer running over a cyclist, inflaming cyclist-motorist division in Toronto. Soon, however, the media began reporting on Sheppard's past: his problems with addiction, his anger management problems, the possibility that he might have fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, and his alleged drunken behaviour on the night of the accident. Navigator had been researching and giving tips to the media all along. A Globe and Mail article questions how much of an effect this had in the immediate aftermath of the accident, but after Bryant was released on bail, the firm launched a social media campaign to support him. They created a Wordpress blog called Bryant Facts and a Twitter handle, @bryantfacts, in a move that bypassed traditional media channels. It proved very effective in swaying public opinion. The Crown dismissed all charges against Bryant, to cheers from the Globe and Mail editorial board. The tide had turned and the public had replaced Bryant for Sheppard as the villain of the story.
In terms of the early PR battle, Ghomeshi and Navigator were winning, but things appear to be turning on Ghomeshi. Yesterday, CBC's radio show As It Happens interviewed a fifth alleged victim of Ghomeshi, and last night the Star reported that eight women have now come forward to tell their stories about being beaten or harassed by Ghomeshi. Lucy Decoutere, a part-time Air Force captain also known for her role as "Lucy" on Trailer Park Boys, has come forward as one of those women, alleging that Ghomeshi choked and slapped her without warning or consent. And today best selling author Reva Seth shared her own account of a violent non-consensual sexual encounter with Ghomeshi. As more drama unfolds, it'll be harder for the media to respond to Ghomeshi's spin on the story, especially if more women are ready to go public with their accusations. As more information comes to light, let's hope media coverage skims over the useless PR stunt lawsuit and focuses on Ghomeshi's alleged crimes, and that it also respects the alleged victims enough to take their words and accusations seriously, not treating them like irrational, "jilted ex-girlfriends" because some of them may have agreed to take part in BDSM with a celebrity.