Rob Ford offers up another crisis communications lesson, and what about journalistic ethics?
Posted on May 26, 2013
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford may be an idiot and he may be belligerent, but that’s not to say he’s not good for a couple of lessons in crisis communications. And it’s not to say there aren’t a couple of questions for some of the media involved as well. But Rob Ford first.
I have been watching this whole Ford fiasco play out since the story of the controversial video first surfaced, and a couple of lessons jump out.
1. Refusing to comment is not a good strategy. Actually sometimes it is, but usually not, and this is one of those times.
Look at how his silence affected the story, and keep in mind usually when people refuse to comment it is because they want the story to go away and they figure not commenting will help that happen.
In this case, as is typical, the silence just drove the media to talk to others and to dig deeper. This included talking to Toronto city councilors, many of whom wanted to distance themselves from the mayor (those who weren’t already at war with him), and their comments calling on him to address the issue brought more heat on the mayor, especially the suggestions, from councilors and various media people, that his silence must be confirmation that he’s guilty.
2. His second crisis communications mistake was listening to legal advice that he not comment. Of course legal advice has value, but many lawyers don’t consider the public relations damage that goes with advice not to comment. As anyone who has taken our media training knows “if winning in the court of law comes at the expense of winning in the court of public opinion, that is often too high a price to pay.”
But it has now come out that it was indeed legal advice that prompted the mayor to let this fester for a week or however long it has been dominating the headlines.
3. The mayor’s established pattern of distain for the media meant that he was less likely to get the benefit of the doubt. That’s just human nature.
But have the media been fair and ethical? And by media I mean the Toronto Star and the Globe & Mail. There are, or should be, serious questions about the ethics of both newsrooms. The Star’s reporting is based on a video a couple of their reporters saw but were not allowed to keep, and that apparently now is nowhere to be found.
I don’t know very much about video technology, but I saw Forest Gump in a video with John F. Kennedy and that looked real. So what if it was doctored, and then doesn’t show up so that determination cannot be made. Where’s that leave Rob Ford?
And now we have the Globe and Mail with a front-page story, based on anonymous sources, that Rob Ford’s brother sold dope 30 years ago.
When the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal got in trouble a few years back for its anonymous source story about Prime Minister Harper and what he allegedly did with is communion wafer at the funeral mass for former Governor General Romeo LeBlanc, the recently deceased and well respected newspaperman Neil Reynolds, hired as TJ editor, responded by banning the paper from using anonymous courses. I wonder what Reynolds would say if he were the editor at the Globe and Mail today?
Legally speaking, both the Star and the Globe & Mail are open to libel suits. But the fact the mayor hasn’t launched one by now probably has them breathing easier, because in a suit, the onus would be on them to prove what they published was true, tough to do if the video (in the case of the Star) doesn’t surface, or if none of the Globe’s anonymous sources reveals him or herself.
The bigger point though is that the mayor hasn’t sued. That, speaks volumes. It doesn’t excuse the journalistic decisions, but it saves them money.
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