Column: 7 crisis communication lessons from Toronto’s crack-smoking mayor

Toronto 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 is worsening by the day. The mayor’s admission came after the police recovered a mysteriously deleted video allegedly showing him smoking crack […]

Toronto 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 is worsening by the day. 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 more evidence is now emerging of clandestine meetings and hundreds of conversations between Ford and another alleged dealer charged with extortion, potentially in attempts to recover the video.

The communications around the wrongdoing can either mitigate or compound a crisis. Ford broke seven cardinal rules of crisis communication.

Tell the truth – early

It sounds basic, and yet it happens again and again: the lie becomes the bigger story. Had Ford come clean when the allegations first surfaced in May, admitted his problems, apologized and taken a leave of absence, many would have forgiven the drug and alcohol abuse and suspended judgment on the other matters pending criminal proceedings. Now, his belated confession appears driven by the police evidence, not by a desire to do the right thing.

Tell the truth – comprehensively

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 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. As a result, he now has little credibility in denying new evidence of serious improprieties that emerged from police interviews with his former staff.

Don’t hide behind your lawyer

When he first heard the news of the video’s recovery, 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 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 confessed, his lawyer kept doing media interviews, reinforcing the image of wrongdoing.

Don’t attack your stakeholders when you apologize…

…particularly when they have more credibility than you. For months, Ford and his city-councillor brother, Doug, relentlessly attacked those with questions about the allegations. The mayor called journalists “maggots.” His brother called for the Chief of Police to resign, and then both Ford brothers acted belligerently to fellow councillors, trying to distract attention by calling for them all to take drug tests. This reinforced the widespread impression that far from being repentant, the Fords were resentful about being caught.

Focus your apology on your audience

Ford’s so-called “full” apology was more about how he felt than about the people he had hurt and deceived. In a crisis, listening is critical and narcissism is deadly. Ford has ignored not only the majority of Torontonians who favour his resignation, but also his closest political supporters who have made the tame suggestion that he take a leave of absence. The result is that only one councillor other than his brother opposed a motion to strip him of many of his mayoral powers.

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 and very serious misbehaviour.

Set realistic expectations, and be accountable for them

“This will never happen again,” Ford promised, but addictions left untreated are likely to recur. “I have nothing left to hide,” he said in a statement quickly disproved by the mountain of evidence of offensive behaviour and 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 public relations 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, every organization and communicator facing a crisis can learn from his sad example.

Daniel Tisch is CEO of Argyle Communications, and a Fellow of the Canadian Public Relations Society. He was the 2011-2013 Chair of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management.

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