In the 2007 story The Braindead Megaphone by MacArthur "Genius Grant" winning author George Saunders, a man -- possibly overtired and under-informed -- stands in the corner of a party endlessly repeating inanities.
Because the man is loud and won't stop talking, people begin to gravitate towards him. Some begin echoing what he's saying. And of course, more intelligent conversations in the room peter out.
Saunders's story is offered as a critique of the media, but today it could easily be describing the communications strategy of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and the way our city has responded to it.
It's been more than a year since Ford was revealed to be a crack smoker but he has maintained his meaty grip on power, and is currently dominating the media coverage of Toronto's upcoming municipal election.
To pull this off, Ford has redefined the art of crisis communications, demonstrating that you can survive scandal by simply avoiding the truth or drowning it out.
Ford is not, of course, the first to use silence, denial and obfuscation to advance his own interests. There are many successful companies, politicians and high-profile individuals who have avoided full-disclosure when it comes to effective issues management.
But if there was a Rob Ford Guide to Crisis Communications, it would contain at least two unique tactics he has employed to manipulate the media and blow smoke around his own nefarious reputation.
Filling the Window
In political communications there is a concept called "putting something in the window."
It's the strategy by which a government, party or campaign plans the roll-out of information, ensuring that they release a steady stream of announcements, events or speeches. The goal of this exercise is to keep political reporters busy writing about these specific things, so they have less time to poke around on their own or cover the opposition.
Rob Ford has, in his drunken stupor, stumbled upon the natural evolution of this concept. Instead of keeping reporters busy with policy announcements or thoughtful commentary on urban issues, he jams the window full of items designed only to distract. He arm wrestles Hulk Hogan. He rants about racoons. Ford and his brother have filled the window with bomb threats, giant parties, magicians and trips to Tim Hortons with helmet wearing EDM DJs.
The novelty of this "news" means it will be covered by the media, with the strategic benefit of keeping reporters busy, making sure Ford's name is in the headlines and reducing the amount of coverage available for to other mayoral candidates. Olivia Chow's popularity, for example, has declined since Ford returned from rehab in late June, dominating media coverage.
(It's important to note that Robyn Doolittle, one of the reporters responsible for exposing the mayor's bad behavior, made a conscious decision while covering City Hall to step out of the daily news cycle and investigate reports of Ford's personal indiscretions instead. She stopped looking at the window and peeked into the basement, where the real action was happening.)
Most politicians respect the quaint notion that they shouldn't slander each other, or members of the general public. But the Fords use slander to their political advantage.
If a certain reporter is writing about them, they will attack that individual's character or motivations. If the police force is investigating them, they suggest the chief is politically motivated. If another leader speaks out against them, even in response to a direct question, they attack that individual personally, creating a chill.
The Fords follow a careful playbook when it comes to this strategy, manipulating public distrust of the media, police and authority in general by creating conspiracy theories. They plant a counter narrative in people's heads and when they are sued, they "apologize" just sincerely enough to avoid a lawsuit.
It is the perfect communications strategy for our Truther times and a technique they may have learned from the right-wing media, which is fond of making dangerous accusations in a carefully lawyered manner. "We're not saying that Kathleen Wynne drowns kittens, but if she does, should tax payers really be paying for that kind of behaviour?"
This tactic is cynical and unfair, but it works. There are no longer consequences to making outrageous claims or telling boldface lies, and the media seems unable to control themselves from broadcasting them.
These tactics have recently begun to creep into the strategies of non-Ford candidates. When Sarah Thomson suggests drug tests for mayoral candidates, she is putting something in the window that guarantees media coverage without advancing the public interest.
When Warren Kinsella called John Tory's transit plan "segregationist" a lot of people were quick to declare a strategic stumble. But did he screw up if the intent was to get his Tweet in front of as many eyes as possible, making some people wonder if Tory is racist?
In June, Liberal MPP Steven Del Duca released a piece of campaign literature featuring a photo-shopped image of Tim Hudak as The Joker, blowing up a hospital. The Liberals apologized for that, too, but the widely shared image reinforced the narrative that Hudak's Conservatives would be a destructive force in the province, and Del Duca is now the Minister of Transportation.
On September 24, I'll be discussing these techniques in a panel discussion on crisis communications called Doug Ford is My Co-Pilot, joined by crisis management experts John O'Leary and Chris Eby and Robyn Doolittle, the author of Crazy Town: The Rob Ford Story.
The Fords' legacy, if they have one, is a style of politics that puts personal interests above the collective good. And it has unleashed a new style of communications that turns up the volume on the biggest, most braindead megaphone around.
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