Ex-Ottawa Police Chief Vern White, Catherine Clark join Syntax Strategic

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Catherine Clark and Vern White are joining Synatx Strategic to beef up the local firm's crisis communications services.

A local marketing and media relations firm has recruited the City of Ottawa’s former top cop in an effort to add more firepower to its crisis communications expertise.

Syntax Strategic founder and CEO Jennifer Stewart said this week that Vern White, who spent nearly five years as Ottawa’s police chief and was appointed to the Senate in 2012, is joining the company as a consultant with the firm's new business line, Syntax Prepares. He’ll be working closely with another new consultant, well-known communications specialist Catherine Clark, to beef up the firm’s crisis communications and emergency management services.

Stewart told OBJ she’s known White and Clark for years and said they both bring “nationally respected” expertise to their new roles.

“It seemed like a very natural fit,” she said this week. 

Founded in 2010, Syntax Strategic employs 10 full-time staffers as well as about 10 freelancers and contract employees. The Ottawa-based firm also has a satellite office in Toronto.

Stewart, a 2018 recipient of OBJ’s Forty Under 40 Award, said the new hires each bring unique strengths.  

White, 61, led the Durham Regional Police Service before taking over Ottawa’s police force and served more than two decades as an assistant commissioner with the RCMP before that. Stewart said the longtime law enforcement officer brings a background in dealing with emergency situations that’s rare for someone at a company like hers. 

“Certainly, from a communications perspective, it was a gap,” she said. “Bringing in that expertise (from someone) that truly has walked an organization from point A to point B through an emergency is something that we felt we were missing.”

The ex-cop said he’s looking forward to working with Stewart and Clark, praising the entrepreneurs for their “integrity.”

White, who also teaches university-level courses in law enforcement, said senior officers often complain that it’s hard to effectively communicate the nuances of complex issues during a time of heightened anxiety around a crisis. He said he’ll offer practical analysis of crisis management situations while Clark will use her skills as a communicator to deliver those insights to the public.

“If you look at what’s happened just over the past few weeks when it comes to blockades, the manner in which some of the communications has come out from operational organizations hasn’t always been as clear as it should be, and I think it makes it difficult for the public to understand,” he said, referring to recent protests against a planned natural gas pipeline in northern British Columbia that led to rail blockades in Eastern Canada last month.

Clark agreed.

“Especially in a time of crisis, people want to know exactly what’s happening,” she said. “They need to know bite-sized pieces of information regularly and they need to have a little bit of perspective. When people are informed, they feel so much less uncertainty.”

While acknowledging that this week’s announcement happened to coincide with an escalating global health crisis in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic that’s dominating headlines, Stewart said it’s been in the works for some time.

“This is not just a knee-jerk reaction to what’s happening now worldwide,” she said. “It is a specialty of Syntax, and it just seemed like an ideal time to bring the team together and solidify our expertise.”