Bryant’s social media campaign to clear his name could ‘backfire’

Former Ontario attorney general Michael Bryant’s social media strategy is sending out the wrong signals and could damage his campaign to clear his name in connection with the death of bike courier Darcy Allan Sheppard, say several Toronto-based social media experts.

Bryant was charged by police with criminal negligence causing death after the 33-year-old Sheppard was struck and dragged by the lawyer’s car following a heated altercation between the two on the night of Aug. 31.

Since then a blog and a Twitter account managed by Navigator Limited, a Toronto-based public relations firm retained by Bryant after the collision has, surfaced.

Navigator Limited also handled former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s public relations during the Oliphant inquiry, a public inquiry into Mulroney’s dealings with Karlheinz Schreiber.

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Supporters of Sheppard have put up their own Facebook page, In Memory of Darcy Allan Sheppard and Twitter account, bryanttruths.

The blog, bryant.wordpress.com and the Twitter account, bryantfacts, however, might end up side-swiping the ex-attorney general’s public image.

This, at least is the view of Judy Rebick, professor at the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University, and author and former host of CBC Newsworld.

“I think it’s already backfiring on him (Bryant),” said Rebick. “I had some sympathy for him in the beginning but for him to have a PR firm spin the issue online when a death is involved, is another thing,” she added.

Rebick said social media such as Twitter, blogs and Facebook are effective because they hold an air of immediacy and authenticity. However, Navigator Limited’s efforts smack of PR spin, she said.

“People follow posts because they believe what they are reading is the voice of the poster. If PR firms flood social networks with spin, people are going to abandon them,” Rebick said.

She said the handling of the listeria crisis last year by Maple Leaf Foods though is very commendable. “They might have hired a PR firm, but the head of the company was there on TV, Facebook, and blogs admitting that something went wrong and that the company was prepared to do something about it.”

Rebick said the company them followed up with updates as new information came along.

Ken Schafer, executive vice-president of products for Tucows, a Toronto-based domain name, email and Internet services firms also thinks the Bryant team’s efforts are tepid compared to those of Sheppard’s supporters.

Bryant’s blog page says it is maintained by Michael Bryant’s team and its purpose is “to quickly correct inaccuracies as they appear with factual responses.” Yet since Sept. 5, the blog has only three posts to show.

The Twitter account Bryantfacts, which is also maintained by the Bryant team has so far attracted 104 followers but it two has only three posts.

By comparison Bryanttruths, the Twitter account put up by the Sheppard team on Wednesday “to quickly correct inaccuracies as they appear with the truth,” has some 40 followers and 19 tweets in a matter of hours, said Schafer.

Schafer noted that the tweets come from different people who have actively used social media tools by linking to YouTube videos, photos, blogs, and other online assets.

If organizations or public figures intend to use social media as a means to shape public opinion, they have to keep content fresh and link to as much relevant online material as possible, he said.

“You have to go all out or not at all, if you’re getting to use social media. Otherwise you’re going to be creamed by the opposition,” he said.

Schafer said Bryant might be unwittingly adding another issue on his current problems. “He’ll end up defending himself in the courts, in mainstream media and now on social media.”

One disturbing aspect of the Bryant and Sheppard campaigns is that “it’s not clear who is behind them,” according to  Barry Wellman a professor at the University of Toronto, who examines virtual communities and social network theory.

People reading online content should know where the material is coming from to determine its true purpose, he said.

At any rate, Wellman said, Twitter might not be the best medium to use in a public opinion battle.

The micro-blogging site’s cap on 140 characters does not lend itself well to conveying complex messages as regular blogs do.

There may also be very little people tuning in.

“Surveys show that less that four per cent of Canadians over the age of 13 use Twitter,” said Wellman.

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