In a bid to counter "damning" media portrayals of the cyclist killed in a collision with ex-politician Michael Bryant's car last month, a bicycle couriers' group is launching its own public relations effort today.
The Toronto Bike Messenger Association, officially silent since Darcy Allan Sheppard's death on Aug. 31, is to break that silence at a 2 p.m. news conference organized by a small communications company working pro bono on its behalf.
The couriers' use of a public relations adviser, albeit one from a modest outfit, is a response to Mr. Bryant's having turned to Navigator Ltd., a high-end crisis management firm, in the hours after he was charged in Mr. Sheppard's death.
The former Ontario attorney-general, accused of criminal negligence causing death and dangerous driving causing death, is to make his first court appearance Oct. 19.
"It really is about just trying to grab the tiger by the tail, which is public opinion, and really get people to look," Donald Wiedman of Wiedman Communications said yesterday. "If Navigator had not been engaged, then the public opinion would have remained on Darcy Allan Sheppard's side."
Mr. Bryant's image managers appeared to go to work literally overnight after the fatal collision along Bloor Street in Yorkville, delivering a neatly pressed suit to his police holding cell and organizing a news conference where the 43-year-old offered condolences to Mr. Sheppard's family.
A blog and a Twitter feed titled "bryantfacts" soon followed, through which Navigator disputed witness accounts and drew attention to "assertions already dismissed by police."
Media outlets, for their part, dug into Mr. Sheppard's criminal past and reported that he had been drinking in the hours before his death, while Mr. Bryant was said to have been on an alcohol-free dinner outing with his wife that evening.
Mr. Wiedman, an avid cyclist and biking advocate himself, said he was "so insulted as a PR professional" by the pro-Bryant Twitter feed that he created his own mirror feed, "bryanttruths," to counter what he saw as unseemly spin.
This feed, combined with media coverage of Navigator's involvement and enhanced surveillance video, posted to YouTube, showing portions of the deadly incident, has helped to turn public sympathy back to the dead cyclist's side, he said.
In the meantime, Mr. Wiedman stayed in touch with the couriers' group, which wanted to keep quiet until emotions subsided.
"TIFF came to town and we all moved on," he said, referring to how the Toronto International Film Festival seized the city's attention through mid-September, "and so they really want people to, for one second, please go back" to review the video and other information that has since surfaced.
Mr. Wiedman suggested today's press conference, at Sneaky Dee's on College Street, as an opportunity for Mr. Sheppard's colleagues and friends to make an official statement and "wax poetically and tell more about who this man really was."
In the process, he hopes to improve the image of Toronto cyclists in general, who have long suffered due to "lousy PR" in car-clogged Toronto.
The couriers' group will also use today's event to promote a fundraiser this Saturday to benefit Mr. Sheppard's four children and to help cover the costs of his burial.