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Toronto Messaging and memos: An inside look at the Ford Nation playbook

Mayor Rob Ford stands before the newly-raised PASO and IPC flags in Nathan Phillips Square, marking Pan Am/Parapan Am Day in Toronto, July 10, 2012.

Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

When the news broke that TTC chair Karen Stintz and vice-chair Glenn De Baeremaeker would be unveiling an ambitious new transit plan, Mayor Rob Ford's senior staff deployed their go-to communications tactic.

They refused to make the mayor available, refused to provide an official statement and dispatched a friendly councillor, Denzil Minnan-Wong, to speak on the mayor's behalf.

The next morning, they allowed Mr. Ford to speak to three reporters who had chased him to Etobicoke, where he was surveying the damage wrought by gypsy moth caterpillars.

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The optics left observers puzzled. Why, at the same hour the mayor's nemesis on transit was giving a news conference on a big idea, would Mr. Ford respond while dealing with a problem so small it literally fit in the palm of his hand?

By 2:17 p.m. the next day, the mayor's office got its act together. It distributed a talking-points memo to allies that derided OneCity as a "backdoor tax grab" for another public-transit fantasy. "This is the third 'exciting idea' proposed by councillors in less than four months … we are excited to see what ideas will be proposed next month!" the e-mail reads.

Internal key-message memos like the one sent June 27 provide a rare look inside the Ford Nation playbook.

More than 150 pages of Mr. Ford's talking points, dated from the time he took power to May of this year and obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, reveal how the communications strategy of the mayor's office devolved from the tight scripts of his successful early months in power to a dearth of scripts during his major losses on the public-transit file this winter and spring.

(The June 27 memo was obtained separately from the request.)

For instance, from early February, when Ms. Stintz called a special council meeting to kill Mr. Ford's underground-only transit vision, to late March, when council killed Mr. Ford's Sheppard subway extension, there's not a single talking-point memo on the unfolding transit debacle.

One Feb. 22 talking-point memo does defend a move by the mayor's allies on the TTC to fire chief general manager Gary Webster but there was no internal spin on the backlash against that move.

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Council booted the mayor's acolytes from the TTC a few weeks later.

While talking points are standard practice for political offices, the documents are enlightening because the official stance of Mayor Ford and his staff can sometimes be hard to divine.

Part of the problem is that the mayor's office is chronically understaffed. The famously cheap Mr. Ford employed 17 people in his first full year in office, down from 22 in David Miller's last.

Making matters worse, Mr. Ford rarely does interviews anywhere but talk radio, he flees scrums after two or three questions and his office generally declines to provide on-the-record comment or statements on his behalf.

Their no-comment policy generally applies to the mayor's highly publicized gaffes.

The talking points only address one of those: Mr. Ford's use of a cellphone behind the wheel.

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"Mayor Ford … has been diligent about using his On-Star in his vehicle," reads an Oct. 5 "message of the day" memo. "As Mayor of the City, there are calls he has to take, in case of emergency, but [he] always endeavours to pull over."

Some of the talking points demonstrate Mr. Ford and his office at their most organized and disciplined. There are nine leading up to and following his labour deals, one of the biggest wins for the Ford administration.

As well, last July they carefully choreographed the roll-out of their contentious "core services review" with daily leaks to different newspapers, consistent talking points, detailed backgrounders and specific councillors appointed as spokespeople.

Mayor Ford relies on councillors on his executive team to deliver his message, a policy that sometimes leads to confusion about whether they're speaking for themselves, Mr. Ford or both.

Mark Towhey, the mayor's policy chief and a leading contender to replace the outgoing chief of staff, said leaving public relations to councillors has generally worked well.

"The mayor gets sort of a top-level view and he understands the issues to a much deeper level than a lot of people would give him credit for," Mr. Towhey said. "But the councillors who are leading those files, they deserve a chance to be the spokesperson on it."

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Mr. Minnan-Wong, who led the successful campaign to contract out more garbage pickup, also played down the risk of message confusion.

If he disagrees with Mr. Ford, he refuses to act as the mayor's megaphone – that's why he wouldn't act as a spokesman for the administration's botched effort to kill the five-cent plastic bag fee. Council killed the levy and, in a surprise move, banned plastic bags too.

"I felt we didn't need to pick that scab," Mr. Minnan-Wong said. "I didn't think the mayor needed to spend all that political capital and the outcome was unfortunate."

The talking points, according to Mr. Towhey, were generated by him or by the former and current press secretaries Adrienne Batra and George Christopoulos, with help from special communications assistant Isaac Ransom.

The mayor signs off on memos that include a direct quote from him, but not necessarily the others, he added.

The talking points are then distributed, usually by e-mail, to a list of executive members and council supporters that changes depending on the issue.

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Press gallery reporters occasionally get the memo, but they are more often sent to talk radio, the mayor's preferred messaging platform, Mr. Towhey said.

Sometimes, however, problems simply can't be spun.

In the case of Mr. Ford's winter and spring transit losses, the issue was so fluid and fast-moving it appeared the mayor's office could barely keep up.

"The messaging wasn't there," said Councillor Jaye Robinson, a member of the mayor's executive. "The communication wasn't there on that file, the advocating for the mayor's vision just didn't seem to be there."

Ms. Stintz fell victim to a similar phenomenon this week as she and her allies bled support for their OneCity vision. Council wound up sending a pale imitation of the original plan off for a study.

Although council's left-wingers did as much to kill OneCity as Mr. Ford and his acolytes, the mayor's June 27 talking points now look prescient.

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The news: The mayor's executive committee defers hiring two public-health nurses whose salaries would be paid by the province.

The spin (June 22, 2011): "There's no such thing as 'free' money. That type of thinking is what got the city into the financial mess it's in today. We are working hard to reduce the size and cost of government – not to increase it."

The news: The mayor's allies on the public works committee vote to remove the Jarvis Street bike lanes.

The spin (June 24, 2011):

"The Jarvis Street bike lanes experiment has failed. The bike lanes have increased travel times by one third for commuters on Jarvis Street. This is unacceptable when gridlock and congestion already costs Toronto billions of dollars every year."

The news: The mayor's office tries to speed up redevelopment of the Portlands by taking control away from Waterfront Toronto. Councillor Doug Ford calls for more private development on the land, including a mega-mall, a Ferris wheel and a monorail.

The spin (Sept. 6, 2011):

"The City of Toronto needs to move forward with this opportunity to create jobs and develop an area of our city that is underused. This will increase economic growth in Toronto and any changes will have full public participation."

The news: Council critics of the mayor say the municipal government is facing a large budget shortfall for 2012 because Mr. Ford and council voted to freeze property taxes in 2011.

The spin (Sept. 26, 2011):

"Taxpayers don't OWE the city a tax raise every year."

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