Thought Leadership

Seven crisis communication lessons from Toronto’s crack-smoking mayor

Toronto’s mayor, Rob Ford, has become a global tabloid celebrity after ending six months of denials with a dramatic admission that he smoked crack cocaine in one of various “drunken stupors.”

The crisis will get almost certainly worse. The mayor’s admission came after the police recovered a mysteriously deleted video allegedly showing him smoking crack in the company of drug dealers while making racist and homophobic comments. One of the drug dealers was later murdered, and authorities have evidence of clandestine meetings and hundreds of telephone conversations between Mr Ford and another alleged dealer charged with extortion, potentially in attempts to recover the video.

It’s obvious that nothing harms a reputation more than doing the wrong thing. But the communication around the wrongdoing can either mitigate or compound the crisis. Mr Ford broke seven cardinal rules of crisis management:

  1. Tell the truth – early. It sounds basic, but yet it happens again and again: the lie becomes the bigger story. Had Mr Ford come clean when the allegations first surfaced in May, admitted his problems, apologized and taken a leave of absence to remedy the harm, many would have forgiven the drug and alcohol abuse and suspended judgment on the other matters pending criminal proceedings. Now, his belated confession appears to be driven by the police evidence.
  2. Tell the truth — comprehensively. Mr Ford’s first apology – delivered on his radio show two days before the crack admission – was vague and confessed only to the lesser sin of repeated public drunkenness, which was already widely known (and reinforced last week by an image of the mayor urinating in a public park). Half-apologies or “non-apology apologies” (e.g., “I apologize if anyone was offended”) rarely work.
  3. Don’t hide behind your lawyer. When he first heard the news of the video’s recovery, Mr Ford said he could not defend himself because the matter was “before the courts,” a specious argument since he had not been charged. Still, out came Mr Ford’s lawyer, initially with a call for the police to release the video – another deceptive tactic since he knew the police could not do so. Even after the mayor had “gone public,” his lawyer kept doing media interviews, reinforcing the image of wrongdoing.
  4. Don’t attack your stakeholders when you apologize – particularly when they have more credibility than you. For months, Mr Ford and his city-councillor brother have relentlessly attacked those with questions about the allegations, even calling journalists “maggots.” This week, Mr Ford’s brother followed the mayor’s apology with an astonishing call for the Chief of Police to resign for allegedly politicizing the investigation. This reinforced the widespread impression that far from being repentant, the Fords were resentful about being caught.
  5. Focus your apology on your audience. As one writer noted, Mr Ford’s eventual “full” apology was more about how he felt than about the people he had hurt, deceived and disappointed.  In a crisis, listening is critical and narcissism is deadly. While Mr Ford did not heed the majority of Torontonians who favour his resignation, even his closest political supporters have urged him to take a leave of absence; at this writing he continues to ignore them.
  6. Admit the problem, and propose a solution. Apologizing is only half the battle; a solution requires both clear principles and specific actions that will lead to change. Simply saying sorry and promising to focus (belatedly) on one’s job are empty words unless they are backed up by deeds – particularly in cases of addiction.
  7. Don’t set up unrealistic expectations. “This will never happen again,” Mr Ford promised, but addictions left untreated are likely to recur. “I have nothing left to hide,” he said in an inplausible statement given the mountain of evidence related to his brushes with Toronto’s criminal underworld. Make your solutions realistic – and be prepared to be accountable for them.

Following a global dialogue on the role of PR and communication in building strong reputations, the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management concluded that they keys are a clear sense of character and values, a capacity to listen and engage with stakeholders, and an understanding of one’s responsibility.

On all three tests, Mayor Ford has failed spectacularly. Whatever his future holds, organizations and communicators can learn from his sad example.

Daniel Tisch, APR, Fellow CPRS, was the 2011-2013 Chair of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management. He is based in Toronto as CEO of Argyle Communications, and is a Fellow of the Canadian Public Relations Society. He also represents the global PR profession on the International Integrated Working Council’s Working Group developing a new framework for corporate reporting.

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