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Rob Ford Proves It's Not What You Do But How You Respond

11/14/2013 05:33 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:56 EST

As a resident of the Greater Toronto Area I'm both dismayed and fascinated by the saga of Toronto's Mayor Rob Ford. As a communicator, I'm shaking my head and watching the train wreck unfold with a different lens.

While the hosts of late night television have a hay day, and the Canadian (and international) media lick their lips about the daily sensationalism that has inspired hours of TV and radio, millions of column inches and many more posts online, this personal crisis for the Mayor is one of the best lessons in crisis management I've seen in my career.

The fact is, bad stuff happens. Today, more than ever, the general public does not immediately judge a person or a company when things go sideways. However, they WILL and DO judge the response.

Watching this saga unfold over a number of months, I remember when the first rumours of the infamous video hit the pages of Toronto media. At that time, the city was divided on whether it could be true. Instead of accepting responsibility and demonstrating action, the office of the mayor and the mayor himself went on the defensive. Actions that initiated a tailspin of denial, hoping the allegations would go away. What's worse is that the constant barrage of new allegations and rumours and the subsequent reaction and opinions of a multitude of others make this story a dream for any and every journalist.

I've told my colleagues and friends that I thought the mayor had an opportunity to grow his very loyal base and solidify his future as mayor for as long as he likes in the face of this controversy. The answer was pretty simple: admit and accept the problem, take some time off and seek help and return as the poster child for managing the problem. If the Mayor had made the decision to face the issue and beat it, he would have been a hero, the story would have changed dramatically and he would have gained the respect of millions of Torontonians and Canadians alike. Instead, Toronto's reputation is on the world stage and it's being stomped on.

I've heard that this advice has been provided in myriad forms to the mayor's office, but has fallen on deaf ears. Now, of course, the outcome is irreversible. There is so much discussion about the mayor, that no one can stop the broken telephone, nor can anyone see the difference between what is fact or fiction.

The formula of accepting accountability and responsibility and providing an equitable reaction based on the organization's vision and values is a formula for successfully managing an issue. I'm always sympathetic to the people or the companies that are in the thick of it -- it's a stressful place to be. When something goes wrong, it's hard to admit, let alone admit it on a public stage. No one likes criticism for themselves. While it's incredibly humbling to do, it's an explicit demonstration of character.

I recently helped a client with a crisis of a completely different nature, but it had the makings of being very detrimental to their industry. While they, too, were humbled to acknowledge what happened, they also felt a responsibility to ensure it was acknowledged and more importantly to fix the situation so it never happens again. The power of transparency and truth is surprising in tough times. In this this case, it avoided concerns from the industry's key stakeholders, regulators and ultimately the Canadian public.The story was still told, but the message that was delivered was about the outcome, it was about the solution and the fact the industry acknowledged they had to act and act quickly.

In my client's case, within 24 hours, the discussion was over. The resolutions were being acted upon and it was no longer newsworthy. Compare that to the ongoing saga that has derailed the City of Toronto from doing anything meaningful in the past six months. Unfortunately, this is so far from being over, I worry that the next six months will be as fruitless.

You may be one of many that are quite frankly tired of reading about Mr. Ford and yet can't look away from the fire as he continues to pour gas on it. If that's the case, watch it with a different perspective. I've quite enjoyed noting all the mistakes -- it's a real time case study on how to take a bad situation and make it a million times worse.

I fully expect to be able to use this case study to prevent any client from ever experiencing this kind of professional and personal horror. The simple science remains true: every action has a reaction. And it's the reaction that will determine the fate of every issue or crisis.

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