The problem with PR: Let's speak for ourselves

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In general, I think media coverage of the Michael Bryant affair and the death of bicycle courier Darcy Allan Sheppard has served us well. Each day, new events and aspects have come into view. It's true that the early reactions from public figures focused on Mr. Bryant and largely depersonalized the man who died. The "tragedy," seen by people with careers like Michael Bryant, was mainly his. His fall "in a minute" was compared, more than once, to that of Sherman McCoy in The Bonfire of the Vanities. But some of these boys may have only read one novel in the past 20 years, and that was likely it. Before long, Mr. Sheppard began to emerge too. A Métis from Alberta, he went through a failed adoption and lots of foster care: never surprising in cases of overstressed, downward-trending and often tragically shortened lives. There's lots of ambiguity and much remains unknown; I intend to simply follow as more unfolds.

But there's one element that irritates me severely. It's the presence, since very early, of a public-relations firm aiding Mr. Bryant. Globe reporter Timothy Appleby says he was told outside the jail that morning that a PR firm was involved. Even Sherman McCoy didn't use his second call to phone a publicist. Tim says he doesn't know whether the company was already engaged for another reason, but they were apparently on Mr. Bryant's case.

The firm turned out to be Navigator Ltd., which acted for Brian Mulroney during the Karlheinz Schreiber operetta. This muddies everything that follows.

For instance, immediately on release, Mr. Bryant expressed condolences to Mr. Sheppard's family. As Susan Reisler of Media Profile, another PR firm, told the Toronto Star: "It's appropriate to apologize. It's not admission to anything ..." This is stock PR wisdom in crisis management. You get out there fast with your top person and express regret.

You could see Maple Leaf Foods CEO Michael McCain acting effectively during the listeriosis crisis. He sounded as if he'd taken the course and got an A. The role of PR is important because the question of sincerity helps you decide whether to trust their bacon in the future.

If standard PR tactics are being unfurled, it's harder to know.

Firms may put words in client's mouths, vet their ideas and advise on whether to speak at all. They suggest what to wear: a clean, pressed suit, say, when you emerge from a night in jail, even if it looks a bit privileged -- or a rumpled one that may suggest something criminal. Navigator's website says: "Every game plan we develop is goal oriented. And the goal is always for our clients to succeed." When you call them, you can press 3 for the "on-call crisis manager." (You get a recording.) We don't know what advice Mr. Bryant got on what to say or wear, but we can assume he got some. It's what he's paying them for.

When a news story says, "We have new information from a source ..." is that source Navigator? Or someone egged on by Navigator? We won't know because Navigator "prefers to be inconspicuous." Reporters talking to them have to agree that everything is off the record. Why? Ms. Reisler of Media Profile says her team urges clients "to speak for themselves." Why couldn't that be the end of it? Tell them to get out there and tell the truth, especially if they're politicians who've already faced the news media incessantly. Then the PR mavens could shut up, go home and watch the rest unfold on TV with everybody else.

You can consider this matter a subcategory of the general problem of relations between PR and journalism. A huge number of Canadian journalism grads end up in PR. Some go directly; others have distinguished careers first, then switch. And a depressing quantity of news stories, especially in areas such as medicine, now come from well-produced PR packages sent on behalf of pharmaceutical firms and the like. Caveat viewor.

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