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In wake of shooting, Toronto Mayor fails on communications front

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When the planes hit the World Trade Centre, then mayor Rudi Giuliani rose to the occasion by providing what the public needed to hear and see – calm and reassurance. It's all he could offer, but when it comes to a crisis, often that's the most important thing you can provide, it's what is necessary. Rule number 1 of crisis communications – Show people you care.


Fast forward to this week and the horrific gang-related shootings in the midst of a community block party in a suburban area of Toronto. Two innocents killed, and 23 wounded.


Shootings aren't rare in Toronto, but violence of this scope certainly is. It was time for the mayor to step up. But rather than showing some compassion and offering some reassurance that the city is committed to doing everything in its power to deal with what to every other observer is a growing problem, Mayor Rob Ford choose instead to play apparently to potential tourists, dismissing the event as an “isolated incident” and insisting that the city is safe. He hurt his credibility more by going a step further by insisting that Toronto is the safest city in North America.


While I find that hard to believe, maybe statistically it is, but that's not the point. The point is that that's not how people feel. And when what you say isn't in synch with the listener's reality, your comment will be dismissed.


In cases like this, where emotions are running high, the last thing a spokesperson should be doing is quoting statistics. If it really were an isolated incident, and the recent high profile shootings in the very public Eaton Centre among others suggest it's not, as is the fact there were more than 160 shootings in Toronto this year, up by more than a third from last year, calling it an isolated incident will be interrupted by some as the mayor not really taking this seriously. And that is just the opposite of the message he should want to send.


Mind you in cases where an incident truly is rare, we absolutely agree it's good communications to point that out as way of putting it in perspective, but that's only after establishing that you care and take it seriously. Mayor Ford left out those parts, and just jumped to the “isolated incident” quote and his safe city statistics. And that's why his response has left people cold.


And unlike Giuliani on 9/11, there was no sense of compassion in anything Mayor Ford said.  He did talk tough by guaranteeing that these gang members with guns will be tracked down and put in jail. But that was a promise he can't keep, so it rang hollow.


The next day he finally did get around to expressing some compassion, but it was with the sincerity of a Wal-Mart greeter.


In short, the Toronto mayor did not handle the communications on this whole thing very well.


That's unfortunate because I have no doubt he really does feel bad about what happened, and also perhaps feels a little helpless.


But regardless, his job at such a time is to show he gives a damn and to bring reassurance. This is done through the combination of what you say and how you say it. Mayor Ford failed on both fronts. 



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