“When you can’t afford to lose” is not just Navigator’s trademarked slogan; it’s also its core business proposition. Although it offers a range of services, from market research to communications, Navigator is best known as the firm to which Canada’s rich and powerful turn when facing a crisis that could cost them that wealth and power.
Its highest-profile clients have included Michael Bryant and Jian Ghomeshi. More recently, it’s been a player in the controversies around Hockey Canada, the Special Rapporteur on Foreign Interference, and the Ottawa Police response to the convoy occupation. Bit by bit, we’ve gotten more insight into the work they do behind the scenes to — as one observer once put it to the Toronto Star — change your perceptions without you even knowing it.
On today’s episode, host Jesse Brown and news editor Jonathan Goldsbie offer a primer on the company that’s been a common thread running through many of the biggest Canadian news stories of the past 15 years.
Host: Jesse Brown
Credits: Jonathan Goldsbie (News Editor), Tristan Capacchione (Audio Editor and Technical Producer), Bruce Thorson (Senior Producer), Annette Ejiofor (Managing Editor), Karyn Pugliese (Editor-in-Chief)
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Canadaland’s transcripts are edited to the best of our ability to ensure accuracy from audio to text. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org should you have a correction.
Jesse Brown: There’s a team based in Toronto that at any given point in time employs some of the most skilled and experienced journalists in the country, newsroom leaders from Canada’s top broadcasters and newspapers. But they’re just a part of the team. This team also has had a former member of parliament, high powered lawyers, researchers and pollsters and top level strategists from both ends of the political spectrum. The people on this team don’t just have experience in news and PR and government and business. They also have connections and influence across the board and at the highest levels.
And here’s the most important part. This team has resources, seemingly limitless reserves of cash to do their work. This organization that I’m describing; it’s not a newsroom. It’s sort of the opposite of a newsroom. You see, their specialty is not reporting information to the public. What they do, big part of what they do, anyhow, is work day and night to keep information from the public. Or if they can’t do that, they’ve got a whole toolbox of strategies, ways that they can warp and manipulate the way that the public thinks about things or distract us, or even just bury us in so much conflicting information that we all just get bored and move on.
The organization that I’m talking about is called Navigator Limited. The crisis communications firm that has played a largely secretive but pivotal role in many of the major Canadian news stories you have heard over the last decade and beyond. Their client list is confidential, and their policy is to never confirm or deny when they’re asked which people, companies or institutions they work for. So they don’t talk about their clients and they don’t talk about themselves.
Their founder, Jamie Watt, would not sit down and give us an interview. Nothing much to say, Navigator once told the Globe and Mail, we’re not very interesting, I’m afraid. But their refusal to publicly talk about the work that they do in the public sphere, well, that does make it challenging to report on them in order to figure out who they are, how they came to be and what they have done. Well, you need to search under the cushions, collect the breadcrumbs, read a lot of documents and keep very good files. Our news editor Jonathan Goldsbie has done just that. And in a moment he will join me for the Canadaland Guide to Navigator Limited. Wait for it.
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Jesse Brown: This episode is brought to you by Sam Holling, Joseph Kewin, Gillian Woolmer, Mark Mueller, Alex Rabout, Devin Feuer, Ron Sannachan, and Isaac.
Patreon Isaac: I’m Isaac, a PhD student living in Toronto, and I support Canadaland because it is oh so easy to hyper-focus on grad school. Canadaland has been able to expand my tunnel vision by providing access to unique perspectives and under-heard stories, helping me to realize as a whole country for me to worry about on top of my day to day.
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Jesse Brown: Jonathan, when I think about Navigator, I immediately just think of Jamie. What the principle, I guess the founder of the company. But I realize I don’t actually know much about the guy who is Jaime Watt?
Jonathan Goldsbie: Just to start, I want you to read this ad that ran in the Globe and Mail, sort of like a classified like ad, but wasn’t exactly classified in December 1980.
Jesse Brown: December 1980. Globe and Mail. J. S. Watt and Co. Clothing For Men. Last minute shopping. Trust Jaime Watt and his men to have lots of fresh new ideas drop in at J. S. Watt and Co., formerly The Casual Affair and you’ll find the traditionals. Jaeger, Terry Williams. Johnson, Merritt, Dior, Cardin Shirts and ties and silk, wool, stripes, patterns, plain and novelty ties for that really special guy. Jaime Watt has a velvet cord jacket at $175. That sounds pretty expensive for 1980. Socks in a can by Vagden make fine stocking stuffers. What more can we say? 224 Lakeshore Road East old Oakville, So. He was a men’s clothier.
Jonathan Goldsbie: Yeah, before he was a crisis management strategist, a political operator. Before he was an advertising executive. Before anything else, he was a men’s clothier in Oakville, Ontario.
Jesse Brown: I mean, that’s, I guess, an interesting bit of trivia about Jimmy Watt. But what is the relevance? Is there any connection, I guess, between his initial role as a men’s clothier and his ultimate role as the navigator guy?
Jonathan Goldsbie: So after he was a men’s clothier, he moved to London, Ontario, where he got involved in the advertising industry. He had a firm called Cohen and Watt, and through that he built up a client base and he eventually got into politics successfully. Stickhandling a lot of the advertising and messaging of the Ontario PCs successful 1995 election campaign.
Ontario PC Election Campaign Ad Clip : Hi, I’m Mike Harris. When you elected our government, we listened to you. We promised we’d lower your taxes to create good jobs, turn welfare into work, and protect our health care systems. The common sense revolution is a plan of action to strengthen our province. Better and brighter Ontario is waiting on the horizon. Let’s go there together. Thank you.
Jesse Brown: Okay. He got involved with the Conservative Party.
Jonathan Goldsbie: Exactly. But some of the stuff that happened in Oakville and that sort of period while he was a clothier eventually ended up catching up to him.
Jesse Brown: What do you mean?
Jonathan Goldsbie: Shortly after Mike Harris, the new premier, took office in 1995, he had run for office, I should say, on a sort of program of populist austerity, sort of Thatcher-y, by bringing into Ontario these ideas of like, let’s just portray the poor as as lazy and go after welfare.
Jesse Brown: The common sense revolution.
Jonathan Goldsbie: The common sense revolution. Exactly. And so Jamie Watt’s first big media debut in this context in this realm, was a profile in the Toronto Star by Kelly Tuthill that came out in the middle a bit a month after Harris was elected as kind of the dead of summer. She did a sort of a semi puffy piece about the group of seven who helped Mike make his mark.
I’ll just read you the lede of it: “In ordinary circumstances, it would not be particularly noteworthy that Jaime Ward is gay. But Jaime, what is not in ordinary circumstances, the 35 year old advertising legend is one of the most important people in Ontario’s new progressive conservative government, part of a very small, tight knit band of advisors who help Premier Mike Harris make his most important decisions. It seems a contradiction at first that a man active in gay causes as a top adviser to a right wing premier who opposes expanding gay rights.”
What happened next wasn’t actually even about that; it was about the fact of the article itself. It was about suddenly here he was being written about in the Toronto Star, I believe the story ran on the front page. He was credited as sort of the architect of this common sense revolution, the person who came up with a lot of the who helped distill a lot of the ideas into this messaging and branding that ultimately brought the progressive conservatives to power. So a good positive profile of Jaime Watt. But there was a bit of a factual discrepancy that was discovered after it was published.
So the article said that he had moved to London, Ontario at the age of 20 and had gotten into advertising, then. But it did only mention his years in Oakville as a men’s clothier. And it turns out that during that time in the mid 80s, just before he moved to London, Ontario, he had pled guilty to five counts of fraud and one count of forgery relating to bank documents he’d fabricated in order to trick a bunch of Oakville residents, like other fellow businesspeople, etcetera, to loaning him a total of $19,000.
Jesse Brown: He had pled guilty to financial fraud.
Jonathan Goldsbie: Yes, basically to forging documents to obtain loans on false pretenses.
Jesse Brown: Around the time when he was a men’s clothier.
Jonathan Goldsbie: Basically, he was trying to get these loans in order to keep his business afloat.
Jesse Brown: Wow, and then goes into advertising, becomes a legend, according to Kelley Tuthill.
Jonathan Goldsbie: Yeah. In between, he was sentenced to 30 days in jail. He served like two thirds of that.
Jesse Brown: And he went to jail.
Jonathan Goldsbie: Yeah, like as an overnight for fraud. Yeah. For about two and a half, three weeks and just overnight things. So but yeah, he did go to jail for that brief period.
Jesse Brown: And it’s so interesting that getting good press as being credited for being the architect of this political victory as a backlash to good press. It’s like that’s when somebody said, Oh, that’s not exactly true. I know the real truth about this guy. And then the dirt comes out. His political career was cut short, basically because his past caught up with him. And there was a media scandal.
Jonathan Goldsbie: Yeah. And basically it was cut short. His career in, I guess inside government was cut short, not certainly not his career around government, but his career inside government was cut short. He ended up getting more contracts to work for the Conservatives as soon as like a few months later. So he was still involved. But this was a big deal that he resigned because, well, the Conservatives had sold the papers like he didn’t tell us about this. I mean, it’s hard to say how much that was true. But yeah, he resigned and he wasn’t really offering comment in those initial stories either. What I have always taken from this is that through this experience, he learned that it’s better to get ahead of a crisis than let someone else define it.
Jesse Brown: I get it. So this basically is like the superhero origin story of Navigator, like he’s the best guy to get you through a media crisis because he’s been through it himself.
Jonathan Goldsbie: I mean, Navigator is a big part of what they do is trying to get ahead of stories and there are a lot of different ways that can take place. But in this case, for example, you could imagine he could have basically gone out, admitted that this had happened, but that he become a different person or moved past this or what have you, and put it in his own terms, or was that it wasn’t something that people would come at as a surprise, you know, be surprising him with like, oh, we got you, but rather be the one to volunteer the information, for example, and frame it in a way that is, I guess has a in the context of a narrative that’s more favorable. Once again, that’s a lot of sort of the backbone of how this company operates.
Jesse Brown: I see what you mean. The fact that the truth about Jamie, what was so contradictory to this, you know, very positive idea of him as this sort of political superstar, if he had just integrated that into his story, if he had told his his bosses about it, and if he had told the Toronto Star, Oh, I have I have a checkered past, but I’ve learned so much from it.
Jonathan Goldsbie: It’s not hard to imagine that being like an inspiring story in a newspaper, right? Like. You could easily imagine it being framed that way if someone were to volunteer and go like, Hey, I’ll tell you the story, but like this is, you know, this is how I want it to feel about it. You know, that’s part of crisis management.
Jesse Brown: How does he parlay this experience into this company? How does this become Navigator and what is Navigator?
Jonathan Goldsbie: He founded Navigator in 2000, and at first it was kind of just like a market, research and polling firm. And they still do that. Like if you go back like some of the earliest versions of their website, it’s like around like, Hey, we have this poll in the conservative leadership race that appears in the National Post, and it’s kind of like a political-polling and polling-marketing firm type- that, there’s no shortage of those things out there.
Jesse Brown: Yeah, there are dozens of strategy firms, research firms that we would never dedicate an episode of Canadaland towards. They’re pretty banal. Navigator has a very singular and specific place. Like how does that happen?
Jonathan Goldsbie: So over the course of that decade, it kind of gradually started moving into other areas. And what distinguishes them is that they don’t really do any one thing. They’re not just a strategy firm, they’re not just a lobbying firm, they’re not just a polling firm, they’re not just a crisis management firm. And for a while, they themselves had a hard time, exactly, putting a finger on and sort of defining what is it that distinguishes us from all these other companies that maybe do one little bits and pieces of this, but not what we do.
Their particular- their idea was that they are a company that will be hired by an individual, but usually a corporation, sometimes or sometimes a government or sometimes a party, and will, through various means and methods learned from the world of politics, go to bat for them. Whether that means getting good press and just advancing campaign around a particular policy or against a particular policy, and they’ll apply these lessons learned in the world of politics to all manners of communications and advocacy.
There’s actually a case study in a book, a 2015 business book called Why Should I Choose You: Answering the Most Important Question in Business in Seven Words or Less by Ian Chamandy and Ken Aber. They run a company or consultancy called Blueprint Business Architect. Their whole thing is basically how do you distill the entire raison d’etre of your company, Everything into seven words or less. And with Navigator, they hit it at six, something that basically functions as a slogan, but also a sort of a central principle around which the whole company can be oriented. So basically they tried to figure out how do we define what we do that is special and distinct and unique, and that has an appropriate price attached to that.
Jesse Brown: And so what’s the six word slogan they came up with?
Jonathan Goldsbie: When you can’t afford to lose.
Jesse Brown: When you can’t afford to lose? I mean, I knew that it really is very good.
Jonathan Goldsbie: It’s an excellent slogan, although it’s even it’s more fun when you consider it as like a jingle navigator. When you can’t afford to lose. It’s a lot less intense that way.
Jesse Brown: I don’t think you’d be in such a jovial mood. Like this is like the pitch is you have built something, you are a major corporation or you are a celebrity. You have something to lose and you can’t afford to lose it. This is for all the marbles.
Jonathan Goldsbie: That’s exactly it. It’s partly about playing on emotion and it’s about playing on a sense of threat.
Jesse Brown: Yeah. And it tells you before you even pick up the phone, this is going to cost you an arm and a leg because you really have no other option.
Jonathan Goldsbie: Yeah, in that respect, it’s almost like a luxury brand, I suppose. Not a lot of businesses, you know, or maybe the type of business where that sort of boutique nature or high class nature of it is built into its very brand, into its very marketing. This is how the consultants who help them come up with this core proposition explain the value of it to the company and how it binds it all together.
Jesse Brown: Okay.
Jonathan Goldsbie: “What we could all agree was the common thread tying all of Navigators clients together was that they felt as if they were under some sort of threat, but not necessarily in a crisis. In the clients minds, the consequences of these threats were far more grave than your garden variety marketing or sales dilemma. When we asked why the employees of this company were so good at what they do, we were told that they had all come from the world of politics or with the mindset and skill set were so clearly focused on winning. If you didn’t win, you lost. There is no second place. There’s first place and last place and nothing in between. So when you’re under threat, do you want to hire people who have marketing and communication skills to help you? Or do you want a team of people who are absolutely tenacious when it comes to winning?”
Jesse Brown: That’s interesting because it seems like you’ve got a bunch of people- and this was another thing that I think these kind of Young Turks of Mike Harris, of Stephen Harper, they were known for being like vicious realpolitik, smart, strategic political thinkers. So here you see, taking the skill set of like politics is not business where like second place, you could still make billions of dollars. It’s win or lose, and you’re trying to take down your opponent’s reputation or preserve your own taking those types of combat strategies into a PR arena you don’t want to be thought of as like, we’re not providing you market research. We’re not.
Jonathan Goldsbie: Once again like they do that, but.
Jesse Brown: They’re not branding themselves because as you read, that’s a dime a dozen. We’re. We’re here when you can’t afford to lose. And when the choices are winning or losing. So who has needed these services? Who has availed themselves of Navigator?
Jonathan Goldsbie: So Navigator generally doesn’t disclose or confirm who its clients are. They’ll often decline to answer media questions, including some of the ones we sent for this episode by explaining that they have contractual obligations to their clients that preclude them from talking about their client work. That said, through many reports over the years in various means, their identities and associations with various clients have emerged, sometimes as if they’re actually doing lobbying activity for a client. And lobbying is a small part of what they do. That’ll be in a lobbyist registry somewhere. Or, for example, often, you know, their representatives will reach out to journalists on behalf of the client. And sometimes those journalists will report that, Oh, we got a call from Navigator on this file. Over the years-
Jesse Brown: Right, Court filings.
Jonathan Goldsbie: Sometimes court, sometimes-
Jesse Brown: It’s a public expense that has to be disclosed.
Jonathan Goldsbie: Yup, sometimes official processes. So stuff comes out now and again.
Jesse Brown: So the default is secrecy. We’re not supposed to know because you wouldn’t want somebody to know that you had to retain navigator if you could avoid it. In many cases, I would imagine.
Jonathan Goldsbie: Often yes.
Jesse Brown: And so when we learned about them, that’s the exception, not the rule. So you have to imagine there’s a lot more than the ones we know about. Who are the ones we know about.
Jonathan Goldsbie: This is a very incomplete list, but just some of the people and companies and organizations they’ve worked with in at least one respect have included: Jian Ghomeshi,Michelle Latimer, Chick-fil-A, WE Charity, Soulpepper Theatre, Hockey Canada, The Globe and Mail, Nordstar, which is the company that owns the Toronto Star, Brian Mulroney, the Ottawa Police Service, Enbridge, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Food Banks of Canada, Clorox, Kraft Heinz, Pride Toronto, Labatt, Bell, Rogers, Microsoft-
Jesse Brown: Prime Ministers, the biggest companies in the world, the biggest celebrities in the country, people on both sides of the political spectrum.
Jonathan Goldsbie: Yeah. Generally speaking, yeah. Liberal and conservative organizations.
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Jesse Brown: All right. So these are very, very famous companies and people, former prime minister, they’re famous, but navigators not supposed to be famous. Like, how did Navigator get famous?
Jonathan Goldsbie: Let me ask you this, Jesse. When was the first time that you can recall hearing about Navigator?
Jesse Brown: Michael Bryant.
Jonathan Goldsbie: Yeah, myself as well. And I think that really was kind of their big debut in this other larger sphere.
Jesse Brown: I guess maybe because their work there was so effective, you had to wonder who the hell pulled this off.
Jonathan Goldsbie: For those listeners who are outside of Ontario and or don’t remember, Michael Bryant was basically he was a hotshot lawyer who was elected to the Ontario legislature as a liberal member of provincial parliament when he was in his early 30s. And then when the Liberals took power in 2003, he became the province’s attorney general at the age of 37. Eventually, you know, he shuffled different ministry positions. He resigned from the legislature in the spring of 2009 to head up a new city of Toronto agency. But then just before the end of the summer, in 2009, while out driving with his wife, he killed the cyclist, a courier named Darcy Allan Sheppard. Bryant was charged with criminal negligence in dangerous driving, causing death. And there was a whole altercation leading up to that fatal impact. And there were a lot of witnesses and things were not looking good for Bryant.
Jesse Brown: I remember that he was known as an incredibly talented rising star, but he was also known as a hothead. And here he is in like a convertible sports car. And there was no question that this altercation with Darcy Allan Sheppard and eyewitness accounts of the cars speeding off and slamming Darcy Allan Sheppard to his death on the side of Bloor Street. It was not looking good.
Jonathan Goldsbie: Yeah it was not looking good, but within a couple of days, the media attention- the narrative began to shift a bit. It began to focus more questions like questions to police began to focus more on Sheppard, the the man who was killed and all the reasons that he might have actually been the one at fault with reporters peppering police with questions about like maybe did Darcy Allan Sheppard try to grab Michael Bryant steering wheel? Did he try to put Michael Bryant in a headlock? And the star reported at the time that, you know, the police spokesperson found himself wondering where all that stuff was coming from.
Jesse Brown: You know, I remember the indelible image that ran all over the place of Darcy Allan Sheppard in an altercation with a driver of a car like that just seems like a nightmare as a motorist, right, to have this angry, you know, kind of punk rock looking cyclist in the driver’s side window threatening you.
Of course, this was a completely different altercation. But I think that in the public imagination, this brought up a lot of questions, even if the eyewitness accounts had nothing like that. And what struck me about the outcome, you know, I’ve often thought of Navigator, as you know, you’ve got your lawyer for court and then who represents you in the court of public opinion, and that’s Navigator.
Jonathan Goldsbie: Essentially, yes.
Jesse Brown: And, you know, these days, optics being very important. But, you know, we still think of the courts as having a primacy, like you’re very freedom is at risk and the court should be sort of in a separate protected place from this court of public opinion. But it seemed to me that Navigator was so successful in changing that narrative that it actually changed the court outcome because Marie Hannon-
Jonathan Goldsbie: His lawyer, and lawyers, generally speaking, lawyers often work in close conjunction, in coordination. They’re a team management firms, which also would put crisis management firms sometimes under solicitor-client privilege.
Jesse Brown: It’s not that ultimately a court determined that Michael Bryant at trial was determined to not be guilty of manslaughter or whatever he might have been charged with. But after the public image of Darcy Allan Sheppard had been so damaged, she was able to convince the Crown that it wasn’t even worth putting him on trial. It’s like the victory in the court of public opinion was so triumphant that it superseded the need for there to be a court process. This guy, we’re not even going to put him on trial because there’s no reasonable chance of conviction.
Jonathan Goldsbie: It’s not uncommon in and of itself, I should say, to for it to happen that additional facts come out in an investigation that causes police to or prosecutors really usually to doubt that there is a reasonable prospect of conviction in a given situation. And so this sort of created the legend from that initial shift in shift in public opinion, even like just in the immediate the days after this incident sort of created the legend of Navigator.
I specifically remember the Linda Diebel article in The Star where she wrote that, you know: “It’s a reasonable bet that you too Toronto Star readers have an opinion about this situation. But is it, you might ask your own? Definitely not, says a veteran Toronto criminal lawyer loath to have his name published. Look, the headline on this story should be Navigator changing your perceptions without you even knowing it.” And I’ve been fascinated with them ever since.
Jesse Brown: Navigator changes the public perception, changing.
Jonathan Goldsbie: Your perceptions without you even knowing it.
Jesse Brown: That’s chilling.
Jonathan Goldsbie: It is. It’s amazing. That’s why I’m so fascinated with them. For his part, what later told the magazine that was then called the Ryerson Review of Journalism that he saw Navigator’s role in the Michael Bryant case as countering misinformation and a pack mentality setting in amongst reporters.
Quote: “Things were being reported that were not true, that Bryant left the scene of the accident, that he was drunk, that he would be in court on October 19th when it was just an initial appearance by his lawyer. If we’d let them go, they would have set like cement. We did what we needed to do to change the dimensions of the story, and then we stopped talking.”
Yeah, that’s when you and I became aware of Navigator. But for other people, I think many probably became aware of them through Jian Ghomeshi.
Jian Ghomeshi news clip: “The story of what really led to the firing of a popular CBC radio host, Jian Ghomeshi keeps developing. Ghomeshi’s high profile Toronto PR firm, explaining today why they dropped him.”
“Sources say Ghomeshi lied to his crisis management team navigator about how many women could potentially come forward. And his infamous Facebook rant, he wrote it on his own with no input from his advisers until finally, late yesterday, Navigator decided its moral code precluded the company from continuing to represent Ghomeshi.”
Jesse Brown: I can actually take people through this. I remember it pretty well. First it came through an unnamed source That Navigator had been advising Jian Ghomeshi in handling his scandal of being exposed and accused of being a sex predator, but that they had fired their own client and that came to the press anonymously. And that was followed up from a rare official statement from Navigator saying that they had parted company and they they no longer represented Jian Ghomeshi.
And the details that were reported were that it is common practice in crisis communications, that whatever you did, you need to tell your crisis communication firm. It’s rare, I think, for them to say what you have done, sir, is so horrible that we can’t represent you. That doesn’t break the rules. What breaks the rules is we can only defend you if we know what you did. And Ghomeshi reportedly, and the Toronto Star reported this. Kevin Donovan with Jack Gallant. They had been told by their source that Ghomeshi had assured Navigator that the accusation was coming from one bitter, disgruntled ex and a freelance journalist who didn’t like him. And that was me. What Navigator reportedly did not know was that there were many, many, many other women. And reportedly when they found out that they were dealing with many more accusers than Ghomeshi had told them, they let him go as a client.
Jonathan Goldsbie: Yeah, but Jian Ghomeshi himself later wrote in the New York Review of Books when he tried to have this, you know, not successful reintroduction to the public sphere. In an essay, he wrote that the professional team that I had hired as experts to guide me through the explosion bolted to, but not before they had cheered on some ill advised social media postings and threatened lawsuits.
Jesse Brown: So that’s interesting that they cheered on his ill advised social media because that is classic navigator playbook, as you were describing earlier. Get ahead of the story. Tell your version of it. Exactly. So that was a fatal error in this case. The Toronto Star had dropped the story before that. But once Ghomeshi exposed himself and made this a public matter, that’s when the star got back on the phone with me and said, Come back immediately. We want the story back. And I can see the merit to navigators strategy. But maybe the issue there is if they had known that there was so much more that he was hiding, they would have said, do not post that.
Jonathan Goldsbie: All those initial steps are the navigator hallmarks of getting a statement out that frames it in your terms. In that case, it was about supposedly consensual BDSM relationships as well as launching a lawsuit, a wrongful dismissal suit against the CBC, which was very short lived.
Jesse Brown: That was a PR lawsuit.
Jonathan Goldsbie: Yes, because it was very clear to legal observers. Basically, Jian Ghomeshi was a unionized employee and generally unionized employees can’t sue for wrongful dismissal. There’s a whole grievance and arbitration, not a credible lawsuit.
Jesse Brown: It was to show I’m fighting back. And it worked. It worked until it didn’t. It worked in terms of getting everyone from Elizabeth May, Judy Rebick, you know, he had feminists and progressives coming to his aid. But then when it became clear that there were you know, by the time I was done reporting with the star, there were eight accusers. And then that number climbed above 20 and then everybody ran for cover.
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Jesse Brown: Jonathan, Clearly I could talk about the Ghomeshi case at some length, but let’s not do that any further. That was almost a decade ago that people learned about Navigator through that case. What has become of Navigator since? Because it doesn’t seem like they’ve ever disappeared. If anything, they just seem to be a more powerful or more more present presence than ever.
Jonathan Goldsbie: If we’re talking about the court of public opinion, which is where Navigator generally fights, it is much louder, faster and all enveloping than it has ever been, thanks to social media. And I don’t like the term cancel culture, but if you’re talking about what does it mean for public opinion to turn on someone or something fairly abruptly, they have managed to, you know, from the very early days of social media, really develop a practice around trying to both basically try to insert themselves in that and trying to harness it and trying trying to harness it, trying to deflect it and trying to get inside. There are lots of Jaime Watt speeches from around 2011. So like early-ish Twitter days where he talks about the importance of rapid response. And conversely, from a campaigns and strategy perspective, he talks about activating the edge about how you can use social media to mobilize your most loyal and ardent supporters to convey your message for you.
Jesse Brown: I think I see exactly what you mean. I mean what’s happened in the time since Ghomeshi. “Me-Too” has happened after Ghomeshi. Whether we like the term or not, the fact that you can go from having a golden brand to being dragged by millions canceled, as it were. That can happen in hours. If you are somebody with something to lose, if you are elite, if you are part of the establishment, if you have a big company or a big brand, these are the years where like, how do I build a moat around this? Whether you’re in crisis or not, that must be something that powerful people live in fear of like never before. This is probably a really good era to be in crisis communications, and I guess that Michael Bryant and Jian Ghomeshi established navigator as the go to crisis communications firm. So this has just been like the salad years for Navigator.
Jonathan Goldsbie: So Navigator aims itself. I think aims itself to have people with something to lose — whether it’s power, status, reputation, money — and losing those things, largely thanks to the court of public opinion, has never been easier or faster. And so, yeah, to be able to brand yourself essentially as the defenders of the things that you already have that you do not want to lose and that you are willing to pay quite a bit of money to protect, that’s a good business strategy.
Jesse Brown: Jonathan knowing that they worked with Ghomeshi, knowing that they worked for Bryant before I covered that story, but having that knowledge and then knowing that there is that connection with WE Charity, I’ve often wondered when sending questions to powerful people when conducting investigations, when doing journalism, am I actually dealing with Navigator here?
Sometimes things can change really, really quickly. Like you get used to the patterns of response that somebody ignores your questions for a certain amount of time, or they or they answer quite tersely, and then all of a sudden you get really expansive responses from them and the tone of the communications shift and I’m like, Wait, did they just bring in Navigator? I often find myself wondering if they are a player in these stories. And that might sound, I don’t know, paranoid or something or fixated on them, but they do pop up in so many major news stories.
Jonathan Goldsbie: Yeah, I mean, just in the past year and a half or so, they’ve come into the news, into big national news on a few occasions, working for Hockey Canada, trying to help them get past their scandals with limited success.
Jesse Brown: That’s an interesting one because I recognize the playbook there. When an institution is coming under fire and they say, we got this, we’re going to strike our own committee to investigate ourselves.
Jonathan Goldsbie: Well, start a committee to advise or to help guide a path forward.
Jesse Brown: You’re telling the public that we’re taking this scandal seriously, but you’re also taking control of your own scandal, Like, because who gets to determine what that board is and what its scope is and who’s on it?
Jonathan Goldsbie: Yeah. So there was like a story reported by CBC and others in August of 2022 about how Marnie McBean, who was a Canadian Olympian, she said basically she was approached by Navigator to help, you know, sit on one of these things.
Jesse Brown: Navigator asked her to sit on one of these boards for Hockey Canada.
Jonathan Goldsbie: A Canadian Olympic champion, says she was asked to sit in a Hockey Canada oversight committee, but the offer was withdrawn after she lobbied for leadership change. She says she was approached by the high profile PR firm Navigator and was asked to be a member of a special committee of independent experts tasked with monitoring and providing guidance on Hockey Canada’s previously announced plan.
Jesse Brown: Let’s talk about that tactic for just one second, because it’s such it’s such an effective and interesting one, rather than the typical response that, you know, you might take when you feel like you’re being unfairly scandalized to say this isn’t really a scandal or we don’t we don’t take this seriously or this never happened, you’re taking all that energy and you’re accepting it and absorbing it. You’re saying, Yes, yes, there’s something really important here. And no one is more concerned than we are and we are going to get to the bottom of it. And we are striking this independent committee. And really what. You’re saying is like, we’re going to do such a good job of this. You don’t have to keep looking at us, but you do get to and look what happened there. Navigator reaches out to somebody, asks her to be on the committee and she tries to engage with it in a legitimate way and say the leadership of this committee needs to change.
Jonathan Goldsbie: The leadership of this organization needs to change.
Jesse Brown: She says, as a member of this committee, I advise that the leadership of Hockey Canada needs to change. And they say, Sorry, that’s not the advice we were looking for. And she’s shown the door mean.
Jonathan Goldsbie: Another considerable one was the convoy occupation. So this was obviously the big convoy occupation of Ottawa in February 2022 where they advised the Ottawa Police Service, which was reported at the time. But a lot of the details of the extent of their involvement came out earlier this past year and the report of the Public Order Emergency Commission that sort of questioned what one whether Navigator should have been given, (and) had so much influence. But more to the point, whether there was at least a perception that the Ottawa police chief at the time, Peter Sloly, may have placed an undue emphasis on how things and how his own reputation appeared as opposed to how to actually manage the situation in the best interests of what would have to happen.
Public Order Emergency Commission Clip: “Good morning, Commissioner. Good morning, Mr. Sloly you recognize the importance of communicating and messaging? Correct. That’s an important obligation that you have as a chief, and it’s important that you communicate appropriately both in the service and externally to the service, correct?”
“And in that regard, you retained a company called Navigator to provide strategic communications and issues management advice related to the Freedom Convoy from January 30th.”
“They were procured to support the Ottawa Police Service and the Ottawa Police Services Board. Yes, sir.”
“We know they provided services to you. They even prepared a report for you on what your reputation was.”
“They prepared general reports that covered a range of topics, including general trust of the Ottawa Police Service. And yes, they broke it down in some cases to assess trust in in the chief of police.”
“And there was a specific report actually about your reputation. OPS spent $185,000 on navigator providing communication advice for the period of January 30th to February 15th.”
Jesse Brown: That’s one worth talking about for a second because there were two things about that that were so weird. The whole country was watching the Ottawa Police to see like what’s going on there. How are you letting this go on? What are you going to do about this? And then we find out that they’re like hiring a PR firm to navigate their public image. That seemed like like that’s not what we want you to be thinking about right now. But then the other implication that was concerning was not just that you’re worried about your brand, but that you’re letting the advice-
Jonathan Goldsbie: That you’re letting your concern about your brand dictate the action that you take.
Jesse Brown: That navigator is actually maybe even influencing or like controlling what course of action the Police…
Jonathan Goldsbie: I don’t think they’re controlling. But let me read you what Justice Rouleau wrote in his report as one of the issues. He called it decision making in communication, unduly influenced by extraneous considerations.
Jesse Brown: Undue influence.
Jonathan Goldsbie: The Ottawa Police Service and the Ottawa Police Service Board were entitled to utilize crisis management communications experts or strategists to assist them with messaging. However, several meetings involving the OPS’ Chief Peter Sloly and external communications advisors from Navigator Limited and or Advanced Symbolics, which is another company, appear to have morphed into operational discussions that considered which decisions would best address reputational concerns about the ops and Chief Sloly. Chief Sloly should have been far more careful to avoid even the perception of operational or tactical decisions tied to reputational concerns.
Jesse Brown: Yeah, it’s one thing to bring in PR people for like, okay, we now know what we’re going to do, how are we going to convey it to the public? But Navigator seems to have had a seat at the table when actually deciding on operational decisions.
Jonathan Goldsbie: Yeah, there’s another moment and let me pull up the other volume. One of the Deputy Chiefs testified that chief Sloly involved navigator and operational discussions during the process, including discussions in which Navigator advocated for more active enforcement measures. In one instance, Navigator Limited’s principle entered the Deputy Chief’s office uninvited and told him that the OPS should take more active enforcement measures at the National War Memorial.
Jesse Brown: One of the higher ups in Navigator, who at this point in the relationship with Peter Sloly, feels comfortable walking into his office uninvited.
Jonathan Goldsbie: Or into the deputy chief’s office even, and.
Jesse Brown: Saying, Here’s how we should handle the freedom convoy protest. We need to take more action right now.
Jonathan Goldsbie: Or yeah, here’s what you need to do to You should be more active in getting protesters away from the War Memorial.
Jesse Brown: So who’s calling the shots is a legitimate question to ask. In that instance.
Jonathan Goldsbie: It’s not even so much who’s calling the shots is why are they giving suggestions about what shots to be called?
Jesse Brown: So that’s like a tail that wags the dog kind of a thing when the optics actually determine the course of action.
Jonathan Goldsbie: And there’s one more story where they played a significant reported role this past spring, and that was the story of Chinese foreign interference.
Special Rapporteur Clip: “Breaking news. Special Rapporteur David Johnston has submitted his resignation to the Prime Minister for his role in leading the hearings and inquiry and review of public interference in Canadian elections.”
“The latest controversy was unfolding this week with The Navigator, a crisis management firm that he had hired for a period of time. And then The Globe and Mail came up with a. Were you saying that Navigator had also at one time had a client of Han Dong, an independent MP, who this report looked into.”
Jesse Brown: Now, that one, I think, hit in the same way of like you are supposed to be this unimpeachable- the whole point of Trudeau appointing a special rapporteur is that we have we’re going to depoliticize this question. We’re going to hand this off to somebody with an unimpeachable reputation who’s going to get to the bottom of this and take this away from this vulgar partizan fight and care about what happened, not the optics of what happened. And then you find out that the guy has enlisted navigator to stick handle, I guess his public image as he carries out his function as a special rapporteur. But that wasn’t the end of it. And this is a case where Navigator’s involvement actually ended up changing the-
Jonathan Goldsbie: That’s how it appears. So David Johnson’s office, the special rapporteur, had hired Navigator to provide communications, advice and support around the production of their report and their work. And so the Globe got a tip that Navigator had also been doing work for Han Dong earlier in the year. Han Dong being the current independent, former Liberal MP who was one of the subjects of David Johnson’s investigations in terms of trying to figure out whether certain allegations about him.
Jesse Brown: Jonathan, Let me hit pause on that for a second because it is it is so absurd to think that David Johnson has the job of finding out whether or not Han Dong actually was the target of foreign interference, whether or not MP Han Dong actually did the bidding of Beijing, whether or not these media reports about Han Dong are accurate or not. That’s David Johnson’s job. And he hires Navigator to handle his public image and his appearance of neutrality as an honest broker.
Han Dong is facing his own crisis, that he’s the target of these accusations, and he too hires Navigator. And this brought up something that we’ve talked about in the newsroom, which is, you know, when you call up a lawyer, the first thing they do when you ask a lawyer for advice is they say, I have to run a conflict check. I can’t represent you if I’m representing somebody else. Another interested party in this conflict, either the person who you’re going against and sometimes they’ll put up firewalls so that the same firm can handle this. But that’s the first question that they ask. And there’s, of course, a law society that governs these things. What regulations govern an industry like crisis communications?
Jonathan Goldsbie: The Special Rapporteurs office told The Globe and Mail was that the first time he had heard of any relationship between Navigator and Han Dong was when he received the globe and mails questions and that under the circumstances he decided we best to end navigators engagement with their team. So neither navigator nor Han Dong confirmed anything for the Globe. But the Special Rapporteurs office told The Globe that Navigator has confirmed that it was never working for Han Dong and the independent Special Rapporteur at the same.
Jesse Brown: At the same time. But the information you get from your first file, conceivably at least that’s known to navigator when they embark upon their second file.
Jonathan Goldsbie: Conceivably.
Jesse Brown: Jonathan how long after that was it that David Johnson stepped down as special rapporteur?
Jonathan Goldsbie: So that happened on Thursday, June 8th. On Friday, June 9th, David Johnson did what he had previously said he would not do and stepped down. He resigned. I will say that Navigator has told me that we have a conflict management process in place to ensure legal and ethical obligations are adhered to, and the trust clients put in Navigator is always respected.
Jesse Brown: So they’re saying, trust us, we have internal policies about this.
Jonathan Goldsbie: They’re saying they do have a conflict management process.
Jesse Brown: It’s pretty wild to think that the sensitive information that Han Dong, especially if Navigator says you need to tell us everything you did if we’re going to help you here. So they know everything that Han Dong didn’t do or did do if he was being a good client. And then the same with David Johnson. The same company is trying to advise both of these people through their respective trials and tribulations, and we have to trust them that they’re not going to use information from one file to help their case on the other file. Because we trust Navigator.
Jonathan Goldsbie: Say say they aspire to the highest professional standards and they value integrity. We pride ourselves on our character. Our clients and employees know to expect truth and fairness at every turn.
Jesse Brown: Jonathan This may sound juvenile, but I’ve often thought of Navigator as being like Joker to our Batman in journalism or something like that. Like we are both doing work about public information, but our job is to find the truth and tell it. And their job is often to keep the truth from the public or to or to-
Jonathan Goldsbie: To assist their clients to move past and a situation where the truth, if presented in a certain way, might not be might not have might not be good for them.
Jesse Brown: Well there’s a couple of things that they do, one of which is like, well, forget what the media is saying about you. Let’s get a better story out there. Let’s get a more favourable story out there. But there is a part of what they do that is about directly getting in our way, Right?
It’s about shaping a narrative like there’s a journalist out there who’s trying to expose you for doing X. We need to stop that narrative. We have a toolkit of tactics and strategies and. I often feel like we are pitted against them or they pit themselves against us in our desire to get the truth out there.
Jonathan Goldsbie: Maybe, potentially. I mean, it can happen. I mean, you know, as Kevin Donovan, the first thing is like convince the journalists something is not a story. And the second thing is try to get ahead of it. And so there are a lot of ways that you can try to kill the story. Most of I mean, there are a lot of ways through simple persuasion is like, hey, look, this thing is not as weird or as bad or whatever as you think. And there are ways that you can get you can, you know, kill a story just by planting another story that’s the same subject that’s maybe slightly more favourable in its framing in another place. And it may or may not kill it, but it will set the tone, get ahead of it, set the tone first. Right.
Jesse Brown: Like, it’s not that complicated. We’re trying to give birth to stories and they try to kill stories, right?
Jonathan Goldsbie: They try to shape stories.
Jesse Brown: I mean, we serve very different interests. I mean, ideally, I know that we don’t always function in the ideal sense, but ideally, journalists serve the public. Who does navigator serve that?
Jonathan Goldsbie: The idea is to represent and to serve people who have or believe they have a lot of things to lose as well as the means to pay quite a bit to ensure that they don’t do not lose those things.
Jesse Brown: I have always thought of them as a creature of the elite of the establishment-
Jonathan Goldsbie: Yeah.
Jesse Brown: In Canada. And so tight with the elite and the establishment in Canada.
Jonathan Goldsbie: So Jaime Watt just published a book last month called What I Wish I Said: Confessions of a Columnist, which is a compilation of his weekly Toronto Star columns over the previous like he’d been he’s been a Star columnist on a weekly basis since like fall of 2016. This is like a 50 of those columns as well as his own assessments of and rebuttals to them. In retrospect, the book has blurbs, as lots of books do. This opens with page after page of blurbs, and among those, blurbing are a former Prime Minister, Brian Mulroney, two former national news anchors Peter Mansbridge and Lisa LaFlamme, the publisher of the Toronto Star Jordan Bitove, the publisher of The Globe and Mail Philip Crawley, six former premiers of Ontario, spanning three political parties, so everyone from David Peterson up through Kathleen Wynne, a former B.C. premier, a former Quebec premier, two former Alberta premiers, assorted Rick Mercers and a guy named Bob Dylan, but not not that Bob Dylan.
Jesse Brown: Jonathan, when I saw that list of big Canadian names blurbing his book, I thought, What does this actually mean? What is he trying to convey here? Because like, no one’s going to buy your book because Brian Mulroney gave you a blurb. But it is really weird to see that you’ve got politicians on the left and the right Blurbing your book that you’ve got newspaper publishers from from like, you know, rival newspapers that everybody, you know. Mansbridge And everybody in the media, everybody in the power elite of Canada is sort of like the message to me was, I am a very big fucking deal. I am very well connected.
Jonathan Goldsbie: Yeah, and the book’s foreword is by André Pratte, who is a former longtime columnist and editorial writer at La Presse and was a former senator. And the book’s afterword is by Michael Cook, who’s a longtime former Editor-in-chief at The Toronto Star and also now works in Navigator.
Jesse Brown: Michael Cook, who I worked with, who I worked under when he was the Editor-in-chief of the Toronto Star, locking horns with Navigator over the Ghomeshi case. What does he do? He goes to work for Navigator after he’s done with the Toronto Star. This impresses upon me just navigator as a vector of power, and I’ve never understood why we in journalism who have to get through Navigator to get the truth out, are so welcoming. And this is a book collecting his Toronto Star essays. Jonathan As a publisher of news content in Canada, I’m often inviting people onto our platform to co-host shortcuts or whatever else.
I’ll just speak personally. I don’t know what the star is thinking, but in a million years I would not invite a spin doctor for the elite to come and opine on the topics of the day. I would be terrified. I don’t know who has paid them. In fact, they’re not allowed to tell me who has paid them. That’s their code of ethics, is that they have clients in the public eye, people who I am trying to report on as a journalist. And their job is to spin narrative for those people. That’s the last person that I would let onto my platform. I mean, how does the Toronto Star know when Jaime Watt over the years is opining on the politics of the day? Who has paid Jaime Watt. I mean, I would worry` that the PR spin doctor who I’m letting on to Canadaland is selling their access to my audience, to their clients.
Jonathan Goldsbie: I mean, in practice, I doubt it’s that simple. It’s more it’s more the prominence of being a Toronto Star columnist, I think. And he certainly seems genuinely proud of that. What I can say is he started after he was invited by what he wrote in his book is that after he was invited by John Honderich, who was the longtime chairman of Torstar, what is the story there?
Jesse Brown: So John Honderich asked him to be a columnist at the Toronto Star.
Jonathan Goldsbie: That’s what he writes is plausible. Basically, they had they were starting up a new politics page at the time. They had wanted a liberal and conservative voice. He maybe was just the first conservative who came to John Honderich’s mind.
Jesse Brown: But he doesn’t work for the Conservative Party. He works for whoever will pay him.
Jonathan Goldsbie: Well politically. He is a prominent conservative, Capital C conservative and works for conservative, does work for Conservative parties. The company work is much broader. And so the column seems to have basically sort of stayed going, outlived the politics page. He’s a regular weekly or bi-weekly columnist with a headshot. And it says, of course, you know, he’s a conservative strategist and executive chairman of Navigator Limited.
Jesse Brown: When you work for Hockey Canada or you work for Jian Ghomeshi, you’re not being a conservative strategist. I mean, does the Toronto Star know who he works for? Have we asked them that?
Jonathan Goldsbie: We got into some insight in a couple of months ago when he wrote a story about transportation policy in Toronto in the midst of this mayoral by election. But the column itself didn’t disclose that he’d been an adviser for one of the candidates for mayor or a councilor named Brad Bradford.
Jesse Brown: Well, that sounds exactly like what I’m talking about.
Jonathan Goldsbie: Well, I mean, in this case, we got some insight into what happened from the public editor of the Toronto Star, Donovan Vincent, who wrote a couple of weeks later that actually in this case, someone in Jamie Watt’s staff had told the Star that, oh, he’s working, doing for Bradford. Maybe a disclaimer should be added at the end, but it was the editor who made the call that because the column wasn’t name checking mayoral candidates or advocating for or against anyone, that it wasn’t necessary. But the editor recognizes now that that was that was the wrong call.
There’s a lot of questions about how they- how the Star makes this work, because as you noted, this company has a lot of clients. We don’t know who most of those are. But as one example, when I was, you know, I was working on my email to the Star for comment just a few hours ago. I just thought like, oh, maybe I’ll give an example of this. So I just pulled up like, What are his recent columns? Touches on electric vehicle battery subsidies and the mining resources. Let’s just see what we do know about Navigator. And so the most reliable way to find out who they’re working for is go to the lobbyist registry, which once again small portion of their business. But there are stuff there and okay, oh, here’s a company called Northern Graphite that they’re lobbying both the Ontario and federal governments for. That specifically makes components for electric vehicle batteries. Is that a conflict? I mean, like it’s more of a question of like, is that something the Star ought to have known or considered and how does that work?
So yeah, Bruce Campion-smith, the Toronto Star’s editorial page editor, just got back to me to tell me that, you know, we expect all of our columnists to identify any potential conflicts of interests in the topics they choose to write on. But I guess it’s one of those things that just points to stuff we talk about all the time on all of our various shows here about how Canada is this place that is big geographically, but not that big socially or politically, right? It really is run by this relatively small, relatively tightly knit group of people and institutions and corporations that all kind of know and maybe even respect each other. And within those elite circles, within that sphere, Navigator is very much established itself as the place you turn to when you can afford to lose any of that.
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