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Rob Ford Needs a Crisis Communications Plan

11/10/2013 10:59 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

It was the soundbite that was heard around the world. Mayor Rob Ford admitted to smoking crack cocaine last week.

Finally.

After months of allegations, investigations and transparent denials -- he finally gave the soundbite the media, and the people of Toronto, have been clamouring to hear.

Within hours of his confession, he held a press conference offering an emotional, red-faced apology. An apology that unfortunately read as insincere and self-serving.

It's a particularly humiliating situation for Ford. His political career reveals his persona to be that of the noble underdog fighting the corrupt system. Now, by indulging in some morally-questionable acts and, most importantly, vehemently (however transparently) denying them, he's been publicly exposed as the same breed of dishonest politician he's claimed to oppose his entire career.

As a public relations professional, I expected that at some point during the months of uncertainty over the existence of the elusive crack video, someone in his camp would've thought to put a contingency plan in place, what we in PR call a Crisis Communications Plan. And maybe they did. But if their goal was to help us see the Mayor as a fallible human bearing responsibility for his actions, they fell well short of the mark.

Or maybe he just refused to listen to them.

The daily, international circus that Rob Ford is circumventing so disastrously right now demonstrates why it's so important to have a Crisis Communications Plan and stick to it.

We are a society borne to give second chances, championing a rise from the ashes if only the offender visibly commits to taking personal responsibility, seeking help and moving forward. So what went wrong?

1. He isn't seeking help or moving forward. One of Ford's major missteps has been to dismiss the past as the past. His problem is that most people realize that the past represents a pattern of behavior, and we are wise enough to know that it takes a concerted effort to change that pattern. The Mayor has not reassured us that he too shares that wisdom. This would have been a great opportunity to own-up to past mistakes. By addressing the issues honestly and directly, he could become The Comeback Kid instead of The Teflon Mayor.

2. He evaded the real issues. He was caught on video smoking from a crack pipe, cavorting with questionable people with alleged criminal ties, and engaged in questionable, inflammatory behaviour. During the press conference, he was certainly believable as a man in the middle of a humiliating public crisis. But his apology was babbling, lacking substance, and he demonstrated a stark lack of empathy as he addressed (at least four times) how difficult the whole situation had been on him.

People wanted to give him a chance to explain. He only wanted to defer any discussion or judgement until October 27, 2014, at which point he'd allow the citizens of Toronto to judge him with their votes. Commentators and the international media portrayed him as delusional and indulgent. Self-serving apologies aside, he should have (1) addressed the issue directly, (2) present and commit to an action plan to get help or seek answers (3) reaffirm his dedication to the people of Toronto, and (4) leave. A well-timed exit is a great showstopper.

3. He underestimated the power and reach of the international media and their interest in his story. In keeping with Ford's self-perception as the scrappy underdog, it's apparent that he didn't anticipate the level of scrutiny he'd be facing in office. "Look, I'm sorry, eh" doesn't cut it with international conglomerates and business investors looking for a viable, and desirable, business partner. Toronto has become a late-show punchline, and the repercussions could be huge, affecting our international reputation.

As CEO of the fifth city largest in North America -- the truth is that he is highly subject to international scrutiny, and rightly so. (Sidenote to Mr. Ford: Please stop with the NFL ties. Communication is 93 per cent visual; it would behoove you to dress as if you're running the city and not on your way to a tailgate party.)

4. Failure to recognize that our Perception is his Reality. Ford's behaviour demonstrates a lack of concern for public perception. The truth is, good leaders build strong relationships. A good Public Relations plan requires that you communicate effectively with the public in the language that they will understand, hear, respond to and resonate with. Listening to what the public is saying and how they respond to your messaging presents the opportunity to inform your communications strategy. Your critics can be your best friend. Most especially in politics, perception is reality. Trust others to give you the perspective of your constituents in order to handle your public image.

5. He didn't tell his story. People like stories. They relate to human triumphs and failings. And they find understanding, compassion and sometimes kinship within those stories. This may be the time for Ford to get personal. His reputation has been severely tarnished but redemption is still possible. If he opens up and shares his personal struggles he may be surprised how willing people are to forgive, if not forget. Ford needs to demonstrate that his devotion to reform is more than just a political platform.

A good crisis communications plan starts with a goal, a message that you want to share with the public to reassure them while protecting your brand. The message needs to address the touch points of the crisis and it needs to reaffirm your actions and commitments to fix or atone for whatever lead to that crisis.

In every crisis there is an opportunity to learn and to grow and to become stronger. Here's hoping that this week is a little quieter for Ford.

For our Top 10 Tips on how to manage a crisis or to read the full blog, visit: www.sparqstreet.com

@sparqstreet

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