Case Study on Toronto Mayor Rob Ford

I’m sure if Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has a PR team -and there is no indication he does by his handling of his crisis – they are doing their best to talk some sense into their client. Frankly though, from a communications standpoint, I wonder what advice could be given, at this point, to salvage his career and rebuild his credibility.

Let’s walk through his poorly executed admission of drug use and subsequent refusal to step down, beginning with his timing.

Crisis Communications 101:

Step one: When a crisis emerges – as soon as a crisis emerges – get your message out in front of it. Nothing good can come from your silence, denial or delay, especially when caught on video with the proverbial smoking gun in hand – or in this case a crack pipe. Failing to establish your narrative let’s others control the conversation.  In this case, Ford  not only allowed  time for speculative momentum to grow and  opinions to become set, but his denials and obfuscation made his situation worse by adding to his list of transgressions – not only is he a confessed drug user, but he is now perceived as less than truthful.

Step two: Frame the issue first by acknowledging what is known and what is unknown and take responsibility for your actions. Be forthright, don’t speculate, and support your statements with proof-points. In other words, don’t mince facts and hide behind lawyer speak.   While it is always good to seek legal counsel, winning in the court of public opinion is equally as important as winning the lawsuits years after the fact.  With that context, let’s look at Ford’s messaging so far in this crisis.

  • “I may have smoked crack in a drunken stupor.”  -This statement shows he is still in denial about his problems and is not taking responsibility for his actions. He “may” have smoked crack? Is that excused by being in a drunken stupor at the time?
  • “I am not an addict” – Speculative and certainly not supported by facts presented thus far.  Holding a crack pipe while being in a drunken stupor is pretty clear evidence of addictive behavior. We have only his opinion on this and we already know he’s less than truthful.  This again shows that he is in denial and does not take responsibility.
  • “I’m sorry.” – Nothing he has said supports this statement.  He may be sorry he was caught on video, but he is not making statements that show he understands how he has abused the trust of his stakeholders and damaged their brand and credibility through his association with them.
  • “This mistake will never happen again. ” Speculative – Even if  he seeks treatment for his substance abuse issues, the chances of relapse are pretty high.  I see nothing but words here, with no plan of action as to how “this mistake” will be prevented in the future.
  • “I am not stepping down.”  – This statement is wrong in so many ways.  It shows how he’s in denial of his situation -his substance abuse issues, the damage to his stakeholders.  He clearly is not taking responsibility for both creating and resolving the crisis.  Last, it is a belligerent challenge and evidence of a monstrous ego.  With this, the last shred of his credibility goes out the window, for who, watching this, thinks he will survive the mounting pressure to resign? This brings me to  my last point.

Step three: – How you behave as the crisis unfolds is of utmost importance to salvaging your reputation.  Take ownership for your role in creating the crisis and act in the best interest of your key stakeholders. Carefully chosen words can do wonders to help resolve a crisis, but it is your actions that ultimately make your case for redemption. Stepping down immediately after creating a smooth succession plan is the very first thing he should do to begin rebuilding his credibility.  It shows he accepts responsibility for creating and resolving the crisis and that he puts the best interest of the stakeholders above himself.

Imagine how differently this may have played if Ford had come immediately forward when the video first surfaced and made the following statements:

  • Yes, that is me in the video.
  • I regret the shame and damage I have caused with my behavior.
  • I am undergoing medical evaluation and acknowledge that I have substance abuse issues.
  • I am seeking treatment.
  • In the best interest of the City of Toronto organization and it’s citizens, I am stepping down as soon as we can smoothly transfer my responsibilities to a successor.
  • I hope, with these actions, I can begin to mend the damage I have done to the office and public confidence.


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5 thoughts on “Case Study on Toronto Mayor Rob Ford

  1. I couldn’t agree more … Alex Rodriguez must be advising him on media relations … Happy Birthday to the wittiest guy I know.

  2. Agreed – but when will politicians ever learn that the public is MUCH more forgiving and understanding of the TRUTH and straight talk than lies, misdirection and denial. That’s what hangs them every time. I swear that when people take an oath of office, they get some kind of common sense lobotomy. As do the people around them it seems (or more likely they just don’t LISTEN to the people around them that are telling them the above, not that I’d know what that feels like or anything.) I will point out though that all of what you say is bad PR is also typical addict behavior – lying, denying, minimizing, belligerence and refusal to take responsibility and not stepping down from his post or seeking help – so it’s not just the lack of a good PR dept or not listening to one, it’s also the actions of an active addict. Rather than vilify, I view him with compassion. He’s in hell in the public spotlight. It’s bad enough to be in that hell in private, he gets to play out his bottom in front of the whole world. Although when he hopefully does get help I think he’ll look back and see that this was the best thing that could have ever happened to him. Let’s all hope that he sees his way through and gets the help he so obviously needs. Looking forward to reading more!

  3. I agree with all of your buckets above except for the resignation part.
    If I was hiring you as my PR firm, the idea is I want to keep my job, and for you to keep yours yes?
    I’d skip bulletin #5 and end with bullet #6.

    • My advice would be the same. He may forestall leaving his job temporarily, but at the risk of throwing away his ability to salvage his career. Stepping away from the job, seeking treatment, and then re-engaging is the course I would advocate from a PR perspective.

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