PM Trudeau made a rookie mistake dealing with Julie Payette's past, PR experts say

Julie Payette is facing questions about her past following recent news revelations. Photo from CP Images

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s pick for Governor General, Julie Payette, is getting a lot of unwanted attention as yet another revelation regarding her time in the United States threatens to undermine her nomination to the post. But those discoveries are unlikely to derail her nomination to the largely ceremonial position.

Public relations specialists who spoke to Yahoo Canada News aren’t so sure that the controversy is worth the attention it’s received, even if the optics of it don’t look good for the Trudeau government.

“Certainly the way the story is breaking is going to throw some challenges for the government and Madame Payette,” says Danny Roth, president of Brandon Communications, a Toronto-based public relations firm. “You’ve got to be forthcoming, there’s got to be an openness because if it’s perceived that this was in any way hidden or ignored, that’s going to prove to be an insurmountable challenge.”

However, those same specialists said that the best course of action in such a situation is to be open and transparent, otherwise it opens the government up to charges of willful negligence. Instead, Trudeau should be pressing the case for why, despite these new revelations, Payette is still the right person for the job.

“If the government knew about this and still felt she was the best person to represent the Queen and assume this very important position,” says Roth, “then I would propose that the government go out and very strongly continue to make the case for why they believe she is the right person.”

But even accusing the government of negligence will be tough, as the Prime Minister vouched for the vetting process during a press conference in Barrie today.

“The vetting process is deep and extensive and raised absolutely no issues that would prevent her from becoming Governor General,” said Trudeau.

But even if the prime minister didn’t personally have a problem with the circumstances Payette found herself in during the vetting process, it should not have required a news site to break the story about her past.

“It’s a dumb plan to think nobody is going to find this out. So you have a plan to deal with this and you’re honest about it, and you explain that these allegations were unfounded, we are against violence, and use it as an opportunity to speak about some of the things that the prime minister obviously feels strongly about when to comes issues around women and gender,” says Jane Taber, vice-president of public affairs at National Public Relations, a public relations consultancy.

“The Prime Minister’s office, by saying no comment, has kept the story going.”

The spotlight has been on Trudeau and Julie Payette, since political news site iPolitics revealed on Tuesday her a second-degree assault charge dating from November 2011 was expunged while she was living in Maryland with her husband at the time, William Flynn.

She responded to the discovery of the record immediately, saying to iPolitics, “I will not comment on these unfounded charges, of which I was immediately and completely cleared many years ago, and I hope that people will respect my private life.”

But that wasn’t the end of the revelations. The Toronto Star revealed the next day that Payette had been involved in a fatal accident that killed a Maryland woman  in July 2011, a few months before the incident with her husband. An eight month investigation by local police revealed that Theresa Potts, the victim, had crossed the road while the light was green for Payette. Subpoenas for phone records and witness testimonies also revealed that Payette wasn’t on her phone at the time, was travelling within the speed limit and swerved her car in a last second attempt to avoid hitting Potts. In the aftermath, Payette sent the Potts family a card, saying she deeply regretted the accident, according to remarks made to The Star.

The revelations also point to the changes society is undergoing where a plethora of information can be found online through social media, digitized databases and e-government. “We are going to be in an era where there are going to be very few people in public life who don’t have something in their background that they wish weren’t public but it’s going to be public,” says Allan Bonner, president of Allan Bonner Communications Management, a crisis management firm.

Therefore, new tactics will have to be employed. For instance, the government erred in refusing to provide comment when contacted by iPolitics given that Payette did and asked for her privacy to be respected.

“That’s the other lesson in crisis management, don’t let there be a vacuum,” says Bonner. “The fact that you’re not interested in talking about it doesn’t mean the public is not interested in talking about it.”

The next few days will be telling for the Governor-General designate and the prime minister, and it will largely be up to them how much time the story captures the public’s attention.

Join the conversation: Does this incident make you think twice about Julie Payette as the next choice for Canada’s Governor General? Leave a comment on our Facebook page or below!