Rob Ford

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is back in the media again because a recent video has surfaced showing him rambling drunk at a fast-food restaurant.

People around the world know him as the “Crack Mayor.” In fact, when we were recently in South Africa to connect with a client, we were often asked about him. When people heard that we were from Canada, they usually laughed and asked about the “Crack Mayor.” It happened in Johannesburg, Knysna, Cape Town and Swaziland. It even happened on a safari in the African bush from a person who spends 80% of his life at a game lodge many miles away from the closest town, television or newspaper. It’s clear that Mr. Ford has put the eyes of the world on himself – and by association, Toronto and even Canada.

I think we are all aware of the substance and alcohol issues that Mr. Ford appears to be struggling with. It has been reported that while it is dwindling, he does still have support from some of the factions of voters in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). However, this blog post really isn’t about Mr. Ford – it’s about the responsibilities that we, as communicators, face. What would you do if Rob Ford was your client – or if you were the director of communications for the GTA?

The Rob Ford issue has been going on for some time. In spring 2013, Mr. Ford fired his then chief of staff (reportedly because the chief of staff told him to get help), shortly after his press secretary and deputy communications officer quit. Brother (and City Councillor) Doug Ford’s executive assistant was then appointed director of communications. And, as we all know, since then, media have been having a hay day with Mr. Ford, his antics and his headline grabbing, late night comedy monologue inspiring comments.

We have spent some time discussing the challenges being faced by the mayor’s office and how we would handle ongoing issues such as the ones they continue to experience. Everyone at our PR agency is very dedicated to our clients, yet when it comes to a situation like this – the response always comes around to the fact that this appears to be one of those situations where we would have to resign the account.

From an outside perspective (meaning I don’t know what goes on behind closed doors at Toronto City Hall), the issues with Mr. Ford have nothing to do with communication. I can’t see any way a communications person could make the current situation better. And it appears to me that Mr. Ford isn’t listening to anyone’s counsel or advice.

Here at AHA, we have solid issues and crisis communication experience and while we have had our share of challenging clients, we’ve never had to deal with this extreme. Usually, clients come to us (for issues and crisis communication or for proactive PR) because they have something going on that requires our specific expertise and skill set. It’s not always cut and dried or even straightforward. In fact, there have been quite a few times where there have been heated discussions about how to approach communication around an issue and not everyone at the table has immediately agreed with the strategy we put forward. We see it as our job to not only engage in these types of conversations, but to encourage and facilitate them. A good strategy can be outlined, explained and described. It can be laid out in a manner that allows those involved in the decision-making process to understand the rationale and reasoning for the plan. A part of our job is to use critical thinking in reviewing what might work – and to “go at” an idea to make sure it is the right idea at the right time. It’s important to approach communication from different perspectives, opinions and platforms and to work through the good, the bad and the ugly. That’s just a part of the work we do (and it’s not always pretty or easy, but it is effective).

We have asked ourselves what we would do if we had a client who didn’t take our advice and consistently went rogue with the media in the way Mr. Ford has. The answer: The first time it happened, we would have to have a respectful, yet frank, conversation with our client about whether we were a good fit for that organization and that leader. We would ask why they weren’t valuing our expertise and skill set when they were paying for it and had brought us to the table to contribute.

As for working with someone who lies or misleads the media and stakeholders – we’d be out. No amount of strategic communications or PR can help someone who lies or purposely misleads. A person who made a mistake and is truly sorry for their mistake or error – someone who is willing to step up, take responsibility, be accountable and make it right – that is someone that you can help. A person in a leadership role (or any role, for that matter) who has lost their moral compass, who doesn’t see what they are doing as wrong, who finds a way to justify it, or who just doesn’t care – that’s not a communications issue. It’s an ethics and integrity issue and they require help of another kind.

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TorontoI was born and raised in downtown Toronto. As much as I love the West Coast (and I really do), Toronto will always be my hometown. I have been watching the saga of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford develop – or perhaps I should say unwind – for quite some time now. The most recent development added to the allegations of crack use is now rumours of one of the people in the video having been murdered. This sounds more like the plot of a made-for-TV movie than reality, but it’s real.

Not only has this issue (which I think has actually morphed into a full-blown crisis) created challenges for the people working at City Hall, but Toronto has now become the fodder for late night TV hosts – you can see Jimmy Kimmel’s take on it here. I have to admit, it’s pretty funny. However, from a communications standpoint, you never want to see your boss, client, organization or colleague mocked by the media. Keep in mind that it’s no longer just a few minutes of ridicule by Jon Stewart, Jay Leno, Jimmy Fallon and others – it now lives on forever online. And I would bet there are now several investigative reporters digging further into this story – and others concerning Ford – and we will start to see a lot more in the next few days.

From a communications perspective, I don’t think I have seen many better examples of how not to handle an issue or a crisis. Start with the fact that it took Ford a week to respond to allegations regarding the existence of a video that showed him smoking crack cocaine. A week. That left a great deal of time for people to speculate on whether or not it was true – and the fact is, it’s human nature to fill in the gaps. If you don’t provide accurate information, people will create theories, speculate and come up with their version of what could have happened – which, after a few times of talking it through, starts to feel like – in their minds – what really happened.

When Ford did respond, he said: “I do not use crack cocaine.” He declined to comment on the video, which he said he had “never seen” or “does not exist.” Hmmmm… rather than come out and clearly refute crack cocaine use (using words like, “I have never used crack cocaine and will never use crack cocaine.”), he skirted around words. As for the video, if it’s true, he could have said: “Since I have never used crack cocaine, there is no possibility that the alleged video could exist.” Of course, had Mayor Ford just taken a drug test, all of this would have been put to rest quickly. But he did none of the key things necessary to effectively manage an issue or a crisis.

He fired his Chief of Staff and, yesterday, word came out from City Hall that two more senior staff had resigned – both communications people. That sends a clear message. I don’t know these communications professionals at all – not even by name. But I can tell you, in my experience, when one communicator leaves in the middle of a crisis, you start to wonder what is going on behind closed doors. When two leave – well, it signals something pretty big. I know the only reason I would leave during an issue or a crisis is if: a) the client was not listening to me at all; or b) I felt that my ethics or integrity were being violated.

In my next blog post, I will talk about what you can do during an issue or a crisis.

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