What the Rob Ford Saga Means for Communicators

The following piece is an opinion article first featured on Potentiality.com on November 6, 2013.

As the Rob Ford saga spirals from unreal to depressing, it has made me consider the public relations profession and just how important its central tenets are for corporate or political survival.

Over the years, working in both agency and in-house Public Relations, I’ve learned a number of critical public affairs rules which are integral to any communications strategy. Up to this point, Mr. Ford seems to have ignored most of these strategies.

These tips include:

1)      If you mess up, admit it and accept responsibility

2)      Never lie to the public or the media

3)      Good relations with the press can only be helpful to both the reporter and the communicator

4)      Appearances and perceptions can be as important a consideration as the reality of the situation

5)      The facts are important parts of any story

Over the past three years of his reign, the Mayor of Toronto has managed to break all of these rules (and then some). He frequently ignores the mainstream media preferring to talk directly to “Ford Nation” on his weekly radio show address and now, after that was taken off the air, on his new TV program. He has lied repeatedly to reporters about his relationship with drugs and has demonstrated a propensity for very negative alcohol-induced behavior. He continues to refuse to answer lingering questions surrounding his association with criminals.

When cornered by the media on his lying, he refuses to explain is reasoning. His apology earlier this month was neither heartfelt nor convincing. And even after admitting to smoking crack, the Mayor continues to draw out this dark story by releasing only shreds of information thereby prolonging his (and sadly Toronto’s) agony. The facts appear as unimportant to the Mayor as concluding this unfortunate business. This week's spectacle at City Council only hammers home this point. 

Yet despite what seems to be an almost intentional disregard for traditional PR practices and ethics, Mr. Ford continues to remain in his position. Polling taken following his recent apology “for mistakes made” showed that he continued to enjoy solid support among his base – despite all his crisis communications mistakes. Following his crack use admission, polls showed a jump in support.

It is too soon to say whether he will continue to enjoy support in next year's municipal election. But the fact that the Mayor has been so aggressively unaccommodating to media for years and yet still remains in office begs the question of just how important communicators (and journalists) are in an age where principals like a Mayor can speak directly to “the people” through "unfiltered media" or digital channels. Are news analysis and editorials no longer influencing how people think? Can one survive a crisis when you do everything wrong when it comes to communications?

If the Mayor continues with his seemingly reckless media relations strategy and somehow holds on to power, I wonder about what that says about the fifth estate and our profession as experienced communications professionals who makes a living on working with reporters. After all, how important is a communications strategy (and the communicators who craft and support it) if a Mayor like Mr. Ford is able survive scandal after scandal without paying any heed to the advice of our profession?

What are your thoughts on the Mayor Ford media relations issue? Post your comment on CPRS Vancouver's Linkedin discussion board.

Kurt Heinrich is the Online Communications Chair of CPRS Vancouver. He is also the co-founder of thePotentiality, a blog that support young professionals’ personal and professional development.