Douglas Quan (Postmedia News) – In his short tenure as RCMP commissioner, Bob Paulson has developed a reputation for his blunt speaking style.
But behind the scenes, email records suggest, a senior adviser on the RCMP’s executive team has been helping to shape Paulson’s public image — advising the top Mountie on which media interviews to grant and what public relations strategies to employ, and occasionally reminding him to stay on message.
When a reporter asked for an interview in January, Daniel Lavoie emailed the commissioner to say: “My advice is no. . . . We need to stick to the game plan — whenever you speak publicly — to the media, to civic clubs, police conferences, you speak to the force about accountability, responsibility and primacy of ops.”
The interview request came at a time when Liberal Senator Colin Kenny had accused the government of trying to “muzzle” Paulson by vetting who he could have meetings with, charges the government denied.
In an interview this week, Lavoie, who has held the position of executive director of public affairs since June 2011, said there was no point for Paulson to “fuel the fire.”
“At that time, he was very clear on his priorities and he needed to stick to them, and being reminded of it was absolutely the thing to do.”
Added Lavoie: “Sometimes, when you get pulled in all directions, the potential exists for you to lose focus.”
But Lavoie, a former Public Safety bureaucrat, downplayed the influence he has on the commissioner.
“Is there somebody pulling strings behind Paulson? No,” Lavoie said. “The guy is his own man, OK? He manages the way he thinks this organization should be managed.”
But emails obtained under access-to-information laws suggests Lavoie and his team of media relations officers have tried to shield Paulson from potentially unflattering interviews.
When the CBC requested an “urgent” interview with Paulson in late November regarding allegations of systemic harassment within the force, Lavoie wrote to the commissioner.
“We told her not this week and we explained why — you are meeting with employees.
“We may have devised a way for you to do it on your own terms. We are softening the ground — we should talk tomorrow.”
In the lead-up to Paulson’s visit to Prince Edward Island earlier this year, Lavoie exchanged emails with Sherry MacDougall, an RCMP communications strategist in Charlottetown, about which media outlets Paulson would be talking to.
“It’s our hope that you are agreeable to splitting the time allotted between The Guardian and our local CBC,” she wrote, noting that the TV reporter’s interviews “are not investigative in nature.”
Another email to Paulson and other senior officers offered a bit of insight into Lavoie’s strategy for handling public relations crises.
In January, the RCMP Public Complaints Commission found that officers in Prince George, B.C., had used excessive force in 2003 when they Tasered a man, Charles Willey, when he was in custody and already restrained. He later died.
Two RCMP superintendents in B.C. immediately held a press conference to say that they agreed Willey’s treatment was inappropriate and that the followup investigation could have been handled differently.
“The press conference they held was worth the effort and demonstrates once again that having senior people stand up and give our side is paying off,” Lavoie wrote later that evening.
At a time when the force has been dealing with a harassment scandal and criticisms about the disciplinary process, Lavoie’s emails suggest there has been an effort to have Paulson celebrate “good work” as often as he can.
About two months after Paulson became commissioner, Lavoie sent him a script for his fourth video message to employees. The script highlighted the arrest of a naval intelligence officer in Halifax on espionage charges, efforts to crack down on ecstasy-related deaths — even the promotion of traffic safety in Prince County, P.E.I.
“These are examples of what I call our core policing — the stuff I love about the RCMP, and why I joined the force 26 years ago,” the script read.