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How Rob Ford Could Have Saved His Career (UPDATED)

05/24/2013 12:18 EDT | Updated 07/24/2013 05:12 EDT
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Toronto used to have a mayor.

Toronto had a mayor who, despite all the criticisms about him, did a laudable job reining in city spending. He was roundly criticized - some would say attacked - but still commanded a following. Rob Ford could still (arguably, at least) lead a city.

Not anymore.

No matter what happens in the next week, Rob Ford's career is over. He is a dead man walking. If he sticks around, the official mascot for the office may as well be a zombie.

But it didn't have to be this way.

The story has been detailed at length - the Toronto Star claims to have seen a video that shows the Mayor smoking crack cocaine and making derogatory comments. Ford has chosen to imitate an ostrich when it comes to questions regarding "the video." He has buried his head in the sand. It's a lousy strategy, highlighting only his ability to run away from trouble. It's not leadership - it's panic. And it's especially sad when he had so many options open to him.

Option One: Own up to it.

"Citizens, I have failed as a person. I have agreed to step aside temporarily while I seek rehabilitation. It is my sincere hope that I can conquer these personal demons in my life, and come back stronger, more capable than ever. I would like to sincerely apologize for my conduct, and reassure you that I will do all I can to make sure it never happens again."

Take the hit now. The public has a tremendous ability to show forgiveness. But you need to give them the opportunity to forgive. They're not going to forgive anyone who simply ignores the problem.

Option Two: Righteous Indignation

"I am absolutely sickened that the Toronto Star would stoop this low. Have they not proven already how absolutely biased they are? This is disgusting and appalling... patronizing a couple of low-life drug dealers who claim to have a video of me smoking crack? Is that as creative as they can get? Not only do I deny this on the strongest possible terms, I have referred the issue to the Toronto Police, and my lawyer. I dare them to accuse me of smoking crack again, and watch the libel lawsuits fly."

Putting the onus on the accuser, however indelicate, does take Ford out of pure defensive mode. It allows him to seize control of the narrative and above all, show leadership.

Option Three: Deny, deny, deny.

This is not recommended, for a bunch of reasons. But - if the tape is real, Ford may recognize he's toast anyway. If that's the case, circle the wagons, let the wing-nut conspiracy theorists have the floor, and despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary - deny. Deny all day long.

Forensic evidence suggests the tape is real? Deny. Voiceprint analysis proves it's your voice? "That's BS!" Pound a fist, turn red, dance, yell, and shout at anyone who will listen that it's all a massive left-wing conspiracy.

The mainstream, credible media would mock him - heck, the Toronto Star would have a full-on temper tantrum - but that's hardly new. It's a long-shot, but if he tried to play this card, he might just be able to cobble together enough support from the die-hards to continue his mandate.

But Ford didn't do any of these. No, he ran away and hid like a scared, petulant child. And it's this complete and total lack of leadership that has doomed him.

At this point, it doesn't matter whether the video is real or not - the electorate has seen their Mayor as someone who clearly cannot handle dealing with a rough situation when the chips are down.

There's no way out now. Rob Ford has painted himself into a corner, and it's entirely his own fault. Ford's former Chief of Staff, Mark Towhey, is a seasoned crisis communications expert. His counsel would have been a true voice of sanity inside the office - until Thursday, when he was fired. When Towhey walked out, any slight, fleeting chance of Rob Ford salvaging his mayoralty walked out with him.

UPDATE: Ford has finally come out and addressed the media head-on. That sound you heard? That's Ford pushing all his chips into the middle of the table and going all-in. He's setting up for a showdown. It's a risky move, and is a strange mix of strategy two and three.

Communications wise, he committed three major flaws:

a) The 'non-denial' denial

"I do not use crack cocaine nor am I an addict of crack cocaine" was his exact quote. Which is all well and good, but as everyone was quick to point out, is NOT the same thing as "I have never smoked crack cocaine." If you're going to deny, go for the jugular and deny all the way. This is not the time to parse words.

b) Denying the negative

What's the most famous political quote in history? Actually, you can pick between "I did not have sex with that woman" or "I am not a crook." Either way, they denied a negative allegation with a negative response. "I am an honest man, and have been faithful to my marriage" is a really boring answer - and sometimes, boring is good. The resulting headline of the Toronto Sun (which, in theory, is the friendliest paper towards Ford) is "I am not an addict." Denying a negative with a negative merely focuses attention on the problem. If you're going to focus on a negative, give them the strong "I have never smoked crack cocaine" and at least be definitive about it.

c) Running away

If you're serious about a denial, make it a full denial. Answer questions in full. Exhaust the media scrum. Answer everything painstakingly, thoroughly, and in detail. Wait until the last reporter simply gives up and walks out. Leaving City Hall while you send your non-media savvy brother to answer a whopping total of two questions just doesn't cut it.

Jeff Chatterton is a crisis communications consultant, and the owner of Checkmate Public Affairs. Checkmate focuses exclusively on high-risk communications. Until last week, he was a Rob Ford fan.

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