Rob Ford Needs A Better Media Strategy

Update 6 [March 3 2014]

Rob Ford says his interview with Jimmy Kimmel was scripted.  You couldn’t make it up… but, he could!

Update 5 [October 31]

It’s over for Rob Ford whatever he does from here, but it could have been very different had he handled the situation differently.  Over the last few months, since allegations about a video reported to show him smoking what appeared to be crack cocaine, his relationship with the media has been confrontational.  This morning there are videos of the Mayor shouting at reporters and appearing to push at least one photographer in attempt to get him to move off of his driveway.

Had Ford dealt with the questions and allegations differently, as I suggested in this post when the story broke, he could have stayed ahead of the story, changed the discussion and looked at ways in which he could survive the growing crisis.

Here are five key elements of surviving any media crisis:

  1. Have a clear strategic and tactical plan developed.  You may never need it, but if you do it’ll repay the investment in time and money.
  2. Get ahead of the story.  Address the allegations and questions as quickly as you can.  Use the pre-prepared crisis comms plan developed for use in the event that you need it.
  3. Tell the truth.  The facts will, likely, out and it’s better if the media hears it from you rather than via somebody else.
  4. If the allegations are true accept them and commit to taking the necessary action to ensure that they are dealt with or that action is taken to address an organizational failing.
  5. Stay calm,  don’t raise your voice, don’t confront journalists and remain polite and courteous.

For advice on effective crisis management planning call me on 647.773.2677 or email lyndon@thinkdifferently.ca

Update 4 [Sunday May 26]

The statement made by Rob Ford on Friday afternoon was a complete waste of time – leaving the key questions now being asked by typically pro-Ford media unanswered.  This afternoon, reading the reports of some of the Ford Brothers’ comments on their Sunday afternoon radio show highlights the point of my original post [below] – you can’t call the press names and expect them to like you – and then whine when they ask difficult questions.  The press isn’t bad because they ask challenging questions, and good if they support you and give you a platform – that’s not how it works!

My advice to the Ford’s? Read ‘If -‘ by Rudyard Kipling.  A couple of lines in particular, stand out:

‘ If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster; And treat those two impostors just the same… ‘ 

‘…you’ll be a man, my son.’

The Ford Brothers need a media strategy that enables them to deal with both triumph and difficult questions.  It’ll make them look like men, not like spoilt whining school yard bullies that are being asked to account for their behaviour.

Update 3 [Friday May 24 2013]

Rob Ford needs to get in front of the media – and do it quickly.  Yes, I know this isn’t new – but the opportunity in front of him is – and, if he’s sensible, he’ll seize it.  It could be the difference between a potentially career-ending disaster and giving him a chance to move forward.

The typical thinking when situations like the one that has engulfed Toronto’s Mayor over the last seven days is to get your side of the story on record – and quickly.  Having missed many opportunities to take control of the situation by addressing the media in a planned and dignified  manner – and dealing with the allegations made against him with the seriousness they deserve, a perfect storm has emerged over the last 18 hours.

Gawker and the Toronto Star both say the owners of the alleged video have gone to ground casting doubt over whether the video, they claim supports their allegations, will ever see the light of day.  Ford needs to get his side of the story out – whatever that is – with a short, clear, meticulously worded statement – and deliver it with passion, but dignity.  He needs to give the sort of speech a mayor might be expected to give faced with these kinds of allegations.

It’s not important what he says.  Whether the allegations are true of false is irrelevant. What matters right now for Rob Ford is that there is a window where he can regain control of a situation that has been spiralling out of his control for more than a week.  It’s a rare opportunity this far down the line and he needs to recognize it and seize it with both hands.  The storm may have passed come Monday…

Rob Ford’s future may very well depend on the choices he makes in the next few hours.

Update 2

Rob Ford’s continued refusal to formally address the allegations made by Gawker and The Toronto Star is as fascinating as it is unbelievable.  Arriving with your back to the press, refusing to answer questions… this is not the behaviour you’d expect of an elected official and his continued silence allows his accusers the opportunity to speculate.  It also does him as much, if not more, damage than addressing the accusations head on – after all, if they are, as Ford maintains, ridiculous then he deserves to have his reputation protected – and both the Toronto Star and Gawker held to account.

Public Relations is about perception and hiding [because that’s what he’s doing when he turns his back on the press and refuses to answer questions directly] will only harm Ford and allow his accusers to continue to make their claims.  If the rumours are unfounded, as Ford claims, there’s a very easy way to deal with them and protect his reputation. I explain how here dealing with defamatory comments online.

Update 

Many of the problems that I talk about in my original post, written in January, are compounding the problems Mayor Ford faces in the light of the accusations made by Gawker and the Toronto Star.  Ford’s current strategy has been to dismiss the accusations as ‘ridiculous’ during a brief exchange with journalists on Friday morning – he has not answered specific questions directly.

If the accusations are ridiculous, as Ford claims, then his strategy – allowing two key questions [is the person in the video him and, if it is, is he doing what his accusers say he is] to go unaddressed – the speculation could do him as much damage as the allegations being true.  He needs to call a press conference immediately, answer the allegations directly and take back some control of the situation while there is still a chance to save his career.

Original post:

I’ve been watching how mayor Ford handles the media since he took office in October 2010 and can’t help thinking he’d have an easier time of it had his media strategy have been better.

Since Ford took office he’s stumbled from one run-in with the press to another.  He’s bemoaned his continued pursuit by the media, demonstrated a lack of humour when ‘doorstepped’ by a costumed Mary Walsh, then there was the fiasco over his subsequent 911 call, and an unflinching view that he is the victim of a smear campaign… then there’s the negative press over alleged commandeering of TTC vehicles for his football team, questions over his integrity, use of election funds, failing to account for office spending… I could go on, but Torontoist has a great graphic detailing the various scrapes the mayor has gotten in to over the last two years.

My point is that Rob Ford’s approach to dealing with the media – oft referred to as a ‘scorched earth’ policy – damages him more than it does help him.  As a public figure, or the high profile CEO of a company, dealing with the media is part and parcel of the job.  That means being approachable, maintaining a sense of perspective and answering the difficult questions rather than accusing them of “burning” bridges and being “pathological liars“, “sucky little kids” or “a bunch of pricks” who “whine and cry and moan and … lie through their teeth” when they pursue you – either directly, or via somebody seen as speaking on your behalf.

Journalists also don’t like being banned from football fields, when the team is such a large part of your life, or threatening to bar them from a traditional New Year’s event.  It just makes them more determined to dig the dirt.  The sooner Mayor Ford learns that the easier his political and personal life will be.  Embracing the media would not only help take the spotlight off of him it would also allow him to focus his energies on serving the people that elected him, rather than fighting ongoing battles with both his accusers and the press.  After all, right now his attitude and behaviour towards the media is a story in itself right now.  Remove that and there’s less for the press to write about.

Having just listened to Mayor Ford’s post-decision press conference on the radio it seems, at least for today, that he’s adopting a different strategy. He’s more humble, conciliatory, more human. How long it will last though is anybody’s guess!

What can entrepreneurs learn from Rob Ford’s experiences?  Don’t duck questions – no matter how difficult they might be – it makes you look like you have something to hide irrespective of the truth.  Develop considered responses based on a pre-prepared strategic crisis communications plan that is an integral part of your PR toolkit, take control of the situation and control the story, and quickly move the conversation on to more comfortable ground.

Read more about Rob Ford’s PR and Media ‘Strategies’

10 things every entrepreneur needs to know about crisis communications

2 Replies to “Rob Ford Needs A Better Media Strategy”

  1. Can Zebra change it’s stripes? People always make a big deal out of the individual miscues and miss-steps on Mayor Ford’s part. Granted some have been spectacular and some have nearly had him removed from office, but what’s important is the pattern, and that they keep happening. He’s been behaving like this for a long time. It’s amazing to me that the Ford supporters and Ford Nation seem so accepting of all of this and blind to it all. In many respects, and even at his own admission under oath, he’s unqualified for the job that he has of Mayor. That’s truly extraordinary. My guess is that there will be no change. That the next blunder, who knows what it will be, is right around the corner, and off we’ll go again. It’s the pattern that is the point.

    Your point about media relations is a good one, and it’s another area where the Mayor is almost completely inept. To him it’s like, a grade-3 school yard argument. That’s not going to win you and PR points.

    1. Great comment Steve – thank you. I agree, it’s a hard habit to break and the school yard analogy is spot on – until Rob Ford realizes that the conflict is doing him more harm than good and takes steps to make the press an ally he’s going to continue to experience the same problems he has in his first couple of years as mayor.

      Do you think he has bad advice, or just doesn’t listen to the guidance he’s given?

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