When Michael Bryant stepped before the news cameras Tuesday afternoon for the first time since his arrest after a violent roadside incident that left a bike courier dead, he held his head up, didn't put his hand over his face, and calmly projected a sombre mien. By appearing contrite but not guilty, crisis management experts say, he passed the first test of his new life. There will be many more tests in the weeks and months ahead, but following a tightly scripted playbook may permit him a path to eventual rehabilitation.
Marketing may seem a tacky consideration in the wake of a death. But until this week, Mr. Bryant, Ontario's former attorney-general, was the head of an organization created to market Toronto to the worldwide business community. Now, having stepped down from Invest Toronto, his main task is marketing himself without appearing to do so. Which is why one of his first phone calls was to the public relations firm Navigator Ltd.
So far, say PR experts, he has followed a classic script. "You make your expressions of remorse, you take the appropriate action with respect to your job, you make a statement of an initial legal position, and then you go quiet until [legal]matters proceed," says Jonathan Bernstein, the founder of California-based Bernstein Crisis Management and the author of a media training manual, Keeping the Wolves at Bay. "The public attention span is relatively brief, and once the initial wave of publicity goes by, it won't be until a significant step in the legal process that there'll be more publicity."
Still, Mr. Bryant's legal and communications teams are likely already preparing for his first court appearance Oct. 19, running through communications scenarios and planning media-training exercises.
"The defence attorneys and PR people work together on messaging, to try to come up with a way of communicating that doesn't sound too legalese and doesn't sound too defensive," notes Mr. Bernstein. "A lot of defence attorneys can be real bulldogs, very combative, and you don't want that. Also, they tend to talk like lawyers, and lawyers are not very credible with the general public. They need to communicate more like your average human being, and less like a lawyer."
That's because, if Mr. Bryant, who is a lawyer, has only so much control over what unfolds in the court of law, he can take command over his reputation in the court of public opinion - to a certain extent. And while the goal of rehabilitation in the wake of an incident causing death is all but unprecedented for a contemporary North American politician, there are plenty of other public figures who have surmounted their troubles and earned back the public's trust and respect.
The challenge is, you can't go from zero to 100. If your goal is rehabilitation, it's a marathon, and you've really got to run the race, you can't just run straight to the finish line. Shane Dolgin, a senior vice-president of the public relations firm Edelman
After a prostitution scandal sent Eliot Spitzer packing from the New York governor's office less than 18 months ago, he has been relentless in rehabilitating his reputation. NFL star Michael Vick, having done jail time for leading a dog-fighting ring, is already beginning to rebuild his brand equity.
"A personal reputation strategy is different than a corporate wrongdoing. Personal reputation is a lot about an individual's charisma," says Mr. Bernstein. "Bill Clinton has been forgiven many sins because he's a very personable, likeable guy."
This week, Mr. Spitzer took another step back into public life by beginning a four-month stint as a lecturer at City College of New York. By teaching the undergraduate course Law and Public Policy, at a pay rate of only about $4,500 (U.S.) for the semester, he is seen to be giving back to the community, another notch in his path back into the public's good graces.
Once the legal system is finished with Mr. Bryant, he will need to take his message straight to the public to figure out what similar steps he should pursue, says Mr. Bernstein. "You'd contract an opinion survey: 'What is your opinion of Mr. Bryant on a scale of 1 to 10?' and they'd see how badly he's been hurt."
"He can then go on with a PR program, based on how he's been hurt, and the degree to which he's been hurt."
Shane Dolgin, a senior vice-president of the public relations firm Edelman in Toronto, says companies hit by scandals have an advantage over individuals. "You can clean house, point fingers at individuals, you can let staff go. You have the opportunity as a company to clean house and say, 'Listen, we've got a new team. The people who did that aren't here any more.'"
Still, says Mr. Dolgin, there are parallels between corporate missteps and individuals who need to rehabilitate their reputation. He recalled a situation in which a Canadian ad agency upset a prospective client with an irreverent and unwelcome pitch, which caused the client enormous embarrassment with its U.S. head office. The agency's CEO wanted to know how he could paper over the scandal and go forward with a pitch.
Mr. Dolgin explained that the CEO had to first back up, acknowledge the damage his company had done, and meaningfully offer to repair the harm. Jumping straight into a new pitch was the last thing that should have been on his mind. "The challenge is, you can't go from zero to 100. If your goal is rehabilitation, it's a marathon, and you've really got to run the race, you can't just run straight to the finish line."
So it is with a case of personal rehabilitation. "If you come out of the gate focused on messages that show you're only interested in yourself, I think that's a lose-lose proposition," advises Mr. Dolgin. "What people want ... is to understand there's contrition and that you acknowledge that you made a mistake. They don't want to hear you put that mistake into perspective, or provide context about how it pales in comparison to all the great things you might have done. That's for other people to do, and it's got to come later.
"It goes back to a basic formula in crisis communication, where first and foremost you've got to focus in on the issue and demonstrate concern for whatever harm is caused," Mr. Dolgin said.
In 1982, when someone tampered with bottles of Extra-Strength Tylenol, killing seven people in the Chicago area, Johnson & Johnson Inc. pulled the brand from shelves across the U.S., sharply demonstrating appropriate concern for its customers. When the product eventually returned to stores, it was accompanied by an advertising blitz noting the new safety features of its bottles, and J&J simultaneously sent sales reps out to win back the trust of the medical community. As in the case of a personal rehabilitation, J&J needed to demonstrate it had changed.
Regardless of the facts of his case, Mr. Bryant would do well to think about this:
"You can't ask for trust until you've taken the steps to demonstrate that you're worthy of it again," says Mr. Dolgin. "And if you do, you run the risk of alienating people forever, because you reinforce that you care more for yourself or sales than your customers or supporters or constituents."
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