When your city turns against you

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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  1. Chris

    I agree that this has been very poorly handled, by many by the sound of it, including Ford’s lawyer who apparently told him to keep his mouth shut. The problem is that there are many layers and levels of interest in these things and meanwhile the man does have a big job to do.

    Ford’s biggest disability in this is his physical appearance, sad to say. Mankind do take it out on those who look in some way different, perhaps weak. Its tough for a guy his size to be taken seriously. There are those who will take his side because despite his physical manifestation (which is to them an irrelevance), he has the hutzpah to deal with things and sadly there are those who will view him as a comic and attackable character, and go after him. These are the schoolyard bullies.

    In my own view it doesn’t REALLY matter if Ford didn’t say he has never done crack….. he did say he DOESN’T and that he is not an addict. Perhaps he HAS at one time done that…perhaps. Maybe someone DID film him doing it the one time he did, if he did. Only scandal merchants who like to bully would push this as they are in the face of NO evidence being presented but rumour. Where is the film? Let his accusers both come forward with the evidence or back off AND apologize. I wonder if anyone is looking into the detailed background of the accusers?? How shiny white are they? Is a public figure not allowed a human past?

    It is the easiest thing in the world to make un-substantiated claims from a podium because people with nothing better to do with their lives or with a potential gain to be made, fiscal or otherwise will always be willing to listen and get caught up in the lie.

    Ford definitely needs a better team around him, and having his fairly strong and formidable big brother standing ready to intimidate and defend is hardly helping his cause.

    If I were advising Ford right now, I’d say “Say this…..if you have something, show it. If you have something, prove it, and having denied the accusation, if you can do so, I will stand down. If you cannot, shut up, let me do the job I was elected by the people of Toronto to do. “

  2. Ruth Atherley

    Thank you for the comment Chris. We are always interested in hearing the perspective of others. From where I sit, I think that – given the controversy and focus on this issue – that Ford should have immediately responded to the allegations and volunteered to take a drug test. That would have put any speculation, gossip or rumours to rest immediately.

    In my opinion, by not responding immediately to such a serious allegation and by not being clear and direct when he did respond a week later that he has never used crack cocaine and will never use it, he helped to fan the flames of this issue.

    Certainly there are people that may have a bias against people of size, but from my perspective, I don’t see that as his biggest issue. I think he has a certain style and approach that could be off putting to many people – perhaps so off putting that they can’t see past it to see anything positive in what he has achieved during his time as mayor.

    I am sure many people support him – and will continue to support him through this issue. Without being in the room when the strategy for managing this issue is discussed, what I can say is that as a strategic communications professional I would have recommended that he step forward, deal directly with the accusation, get a drug test and be done with it. Why that approach wasn’t taken has certainly fueled a great deal of speculation.

    From my perspective, the issue has taken on life of its own and I would bet some of the country’s top investigative journalists are now working on this story. I don’t think it is going to go away anytime soon. You are right that Ford has a big job. In my opinion, the best way to get all of this to go away is to step forward and tell the truth to his constituents and a drug test would go a very long way in proving that he doesn’t do crack cocaine.

    Thanks again for the thoughtful comment.

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