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Former CBC Radio personality Jian Ghomeshi, pictured here in the Q studio in Toronto in 2012, (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Former CBC Radio personality Jian Ghomeshi, pictured here in the Q studio in Toronto in 2012, (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Jian Ghomeshi's PR firm Navigator adept at handling crises Add to ...

By the time Jian Ghomeshi penned a 1,586-word letter to the public that was published on Facebook on Sunday, denying allegations still to come that he had physically assaulted women, he had already hired a communications firm known for handling high-profile crises: Navigator.

The Toronto-based Navigator Ltd. has lodged in the public consciousness thanks largely to its work with former Ontario attorney-general Michael Bryant, after a 2009 confrontation that ended with the death of cyclist Darcy Allan Sheppard.

The nearly 15-year-old firm has also become more famous as executive chairman and co-founder, Jaime Watt, has appeared regularly on the CBC – the same broadcaster that fired Mr. Ghomeshi on the weekend.

But Navigator’s leaders choose not to discuss their work, since their job is often to keep clients out of the press, and to advise them behind the scenes.

The firm declined requests for an interview for this story.

“We don’t talk about ourselves,” said Deirdre McMurdy, a principal at the firm. “… Nothing much to say. We’re not very interesting, I’m afraid.”

But there is interest in the company because of its expertise in high-stakes crises.

The firm’s brand statement is, “When you can’t afford to lose.” While Navigator offers a range of services – such as strategic counsel on corporate mergers and acquisitions, public opinion research and other communications – it is most commonly known for crisis management.

So much so, in fact, that the Navigator team is sometimes given credit for situations they did not even handle: In 2012, for example, when Toronto Life named Mr. Watt one of the 50 “most influential” people in Toronto, it wrote that “word on the street” was that Mr. Watt advised Maple Leaf Foods during the listeria crisis. Lynda Kuhn, a spokesperson for Maple Leaf, said in an e-mail on Wednesday that the report was not true.

Among the past clients that are publicly known is former prime minister Brian Mulroney. After Mr. Mulroney’s long-time spokesperson Luc Lavoie left the role, media calls were directed to Navigator. This was in late 2007, during a public inquiry into business dealings between Mr. Mulroney and former arms industry lobbyist Karlheinz Schreiber.

In both cases, Navigator was known for its grasp of new media, using online tools to shape the story for clients. During the Oliphant inquiry, that took the form of a blog, Mulroneymediaroom.com. It also maintained a blog in 2009, Bryantfacts.wordpress.com, and also created a @bryantfacts Twitter account.

Navigator was also awarded two contracts from Alison Redford’s government for communications around the 2013 Alberta floods. An auditor-general’s investigation found that the government broke its own rules for awarding the contracts, and this month Alberta Premier Jim Prentice said that Navigator would not be granted any government contracts while he is Premier.

The firm’s Conservative ties stretch back years. Mr. Watt was a senior adviser to Ontario premier Mike Harris in the nineties, helping to design election advertising that trumpeted Mr. Harris’s Common Sense Revolution. After the election, Mr. Watt had to decline the position of communications adviser to the new premier, because he was convicted of fraud in 1984.

Their services go beyond the political realm. According to co-founder Greg Lyle, Navigator’s first client was insurer the Independent Order of Foresters. In 2012, when Bill Ackman’s New York hedge fund Pershing Square staged a revolt to oust half the board at Canadian Pacific, Pershing hired Navigator among its team of advisers.

“The majority of the work is corporate clients,” said a person with knowledge of the firm. Those clients are not discussed. “[Navigator’s] job is not to be the story. That’s really important to Jaime and his leadership team. The client is the story.”

“The basic idea of the company at the time was to be a war room for corporate issues,” said Mr. Lyle, who left the firm in 2004 and is now owner of Innovative Research Group Inc. in Toronto.

That approach means assembling a mix of experts – including in media, advertising, public relations, research and law – tailored to each client’s needs, which could bypass a company’s bureaucracy and move quickly on strategic communications in high-stakes situations.

Mr. Ghomeshi’s Facebook post said that the CBC had fired him for consensual sexual practices. The other side of the story that would emerge in the Toronto Star was serious because of allegations of physical assault – not objections to sexual proclivities. The timing was evidence of skillful PR at work, an attempt to control the message.

“Being first is very important because you have a chance to shape the story,” Mr. Lyle said. “You don’t want to be reacting, and letting other people drive the agenda.”

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