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Toronto mayor Rob Ford leans back while attending a city of Toronto budget committee meeting on Nov. 25 2013. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail) (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Toronto mayor Rob Ford leans back while attending a city of Toronto budget committee meeting on Nov. 25 2013. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail) (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Commentary

Bored with Ford: Is the media feeding frenzy finally over? Add to ...

It’s not every day that a news cycle captures the attention of the entire country, let alone the entire world. What we’ve witnessed with Toronto’s embattled mayor is almost unprecedented in scale and is ripe with learning opportunities for those dealing with brand management and public affairs.

From police investigations to City Hall meltdowns and botched public statements, it’s been a months-long Ford media frenzy. Just about every media outlet has joined the party, including major dailies, broadcast, international outlets, social media, weeklies and blogs. Even America’s kings of late night jumped on board.

Faced with this wave of almost real-time updates – was Ford’s attendance at the Argos game really breaking news? – many have begun asking: When is enough enough? As coverage of the mayoral mishaps keeps rolling in, have the public simply become ‘Rob Bored’ ?

At what point does a breaking news cycle become a tabloid-like obsession? Or is it our seemingly insatiable appetite for public meltdowns that is the driving force behind this sea of media attention?

Perspectives on media fatigue are almost certain to differ from outlet to outlet. For those lucky enough to break the story, a public crisis can be worth its weight in gold. For others, breaking with convention by not continuously covering a news cycle may allow for other story lines and brands to gain traction, thereby positioning the outlet as unique among its peers.

While the to-cover-or-not-to-cover question remains up for debate, one thing is clear: With a more carefully crafted PR strategy, the recent media storm would have blown over more swiftly and done far less damage to Toronto’s municipal brand.

Here are three ways in which Rob Ford & Co. could have better damage-controlled what has become one of the largest political scandals in Canada’s history:

1. Apologize right the first time, then stop talking about it. Part of what made it difficult for the public to sympathize with the mayor was his series of less-than-satisfying apologies. While Ford may have genuinely felt the weight of his actions, his apologies were often followed by quasi-excuses, finger pointing, and campaign-like rhetoric about his political victories. A heartfelt apology – free of justification or diversion – would have gone much further in garnering a sympathetic response from the public.

2. If you’re caught in a lie, admit it. Love him or hate him, I don’t think a single person believed Ford when he blamed the media for not asking him the proper question about his drug use. He lied, he got caught, and instead of owning up to it, he played a game of semantics. Being caught in a lie comes at a cost, but there are PR points to be won from admitting you deceived the public. Ford paid the cost and missed out on the honesty points. Lose-lose.

3. Step away and fix the problem. Whether the mayor is a substance addict or not isn’t the question. If one’s actions cause this much turmoil, there is a problem to be addressed. End of story. The mayor would have benefited from stepping away from the limelight and seeking professional help. The public needs to know the problem is being addressed before they can believe it won’t happen again. This is what Ford has failed to understand.

While brand managers have little say over the lifespan of a news cycle, they do have control over the official message. The key to handling a PR crisis is about being honest and keeping it simple: acknowledge where you went wrong and show that you’re taking steps to fix it. Removing the fuel goes a long way in smothering the flames.

Mia Pearson is the co-founder of North Strategic. She has more than two decades of experience in creating and growing communications agencies, and her experience spans many sectors, including financial, technology, consumer and lifestyle.

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