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Ghomeshi, sex, public reputations and PR strategies

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Talk about your interesting case study in crisis communications - this Jian Ghomeshi story has it all.

I mean, what a mix – a well-loved, high profile celebrity, the cornerstone of the CBC’s effort to appeal to younger listeners, a firing that nobody saw coming, followed by the pre-emptive strike of a Facebook entry of revelations about kinky but consensual sex. But then maybe not consensual, with allegations of three women half his age who claim he sexually abused them, as well as allegations of sexual harassment within the CBC.

And as if that isn’t enough, enter a high priced, high-powered PR/crisis communications agency, a multi-million dollar lawsuit, and a twitterverse divided over who the victim or victims is.

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It’s not for me to say if Ghomeshi is the victim of a smear campaign by a jilted ex-lover of the “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” variety, or whether he is a sick puppy who is finally getting his comeuppance. Lord knows, there has been enough rush to judgment on both sides already.  

But unlike the hundreds or thousands of people who know for sure, I don’t. So I’ll focus on the communications strategies at play here.

First, there’s the rare Sunday afternoon news release from the CBC, which said “information came to our attention recently, that in CBC’s judgment, precludes us from continuing our relationship with Jian Ghomeshi.” And then they said they would have nothing more to say.

That was crafted solely to keep lawyers happy, not to explain why the CBC fired him. It’s tantamount to my going into a room where you and your friends are gathered and saying, “I heard what you did and it’s disgusting and I don’t want to ever have anything to do with you again”, then turning around and walking out.

All that does is fuel the fires of speculation, and if you don’t say something, those fires are going to run rampant. So CBC pretty much forced his hand.

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And respond he did, in spades. A fifty million dollar lawsuit, then an apparent tell-all of a Facebook entry, no doubt crafted by Navigator, the PR firm retained to salvage Ghomeshi’s reputation and in the process try to bring public opinion around to the point where CBC could see their way clear to rehire him. That last part is a long shot, but hey, Michael Vick is back in the NFL after being convicted of involvement in an illegal dog-fighting ring. This guy hanged and drowned dogs that didn’t perform well and that didn’t kill his career, so there you go. Strange things happen.

As crisis communications goes, strategically the Facebook essay was bang on for several key reasons.

1     It allowed Ghomeshi to get ahead of the story; to get his version out there first.

2     It positioned him as the victim.

3     It also positioned him as courageous, with the detail he provided seeming to lay bare his private life, especially when he framed it as his choice rather than taking the CBC offer to go away quietly.

At this point, judging from what I was seeing on social media, most people were on side, condemning the CBC for unfairly firing him because “it was nobody’s business what he does in his bedroom with another consenting adult” and supporting him against the vindictive former girlfriend.

And that’s probably where it would have stayed if not for the Toronto Star. The Star story, which had been in the works since the spring, changed the narrative completely. Through interviews with three different young women, a story emerges that paints Ghomeshi in a much darker light; in fact as an abuser, throwing doubt of the suggestion that the bedroom antics were in fact consensual and all in good fun.

With this story out there public opinion turned dramatically. He still has his supporters, but a big percentage seems to be siding with the three women, even though they are unidentified and have never brought complaints to the police. Usually, that would hurt their credibility, but their explanation of fear of being victimized again by public opinion, resonated with many.

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An interesting point is that the Star wasn’t ready to run the story because it didn’t have proof, and only did because of Ghomeshi’s Facebook essay convinced them it was now in the public interest. So as well crafted as his entry was, publishing it may have backfired. But that’s simply conjecture, because the story may have come out eventually anyway.

So what now? Well, watch for more revelations. Maybe other women will be prompted to say they too were abused by the former CBC host, or maybe the PR firm he hired will find something that discredits their stories.

And then there’s the CBC which may have to deal with failing to act on a sexual harassment complain against Ghomeshi by a woman who worked on his show and has since left. And then there’s that $50 Million lawsuit.  I expect there may be a morality clause in his contract but that hasn’t been established yet either, but I would think that that would quash any legal action, but what do I know, I’m not a lawyer. 

It’s a high stakes reputational power play, and there are many hands to be played out yet.

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