Daryl Angier and Alison MacAlpine
Your Business|Sales Strategies
Rob Ford: How not to handle a PR crisis | Canadian Insurance

Rob Ford: How not to handle a PR crisis

3 tips on media relations and crisis management

As the entire world now knows, last week staffers from the Toronto Star newspaper and gossip blog Gawker reported that they had seen a cellphone video in which Toronto mayor Rob Ford is allegedly smoking crack cocaine and making racist and homophobic slurs.

The next day, Ford made a few brief statements calling the allegations “ridiculous” and has since refused to say anything more about them. The controversy has only continued to grow, becoming fodder for late night comedy shows and dominating headlines as the media, politicians of all stripes and the general public demand a more thorough response to the allegations. Ford, however, has gone to ground, refusing to answer any direct questions about the video or his alleged drug use.

Ford’s brother, city councilor Doug Ford, normally an attack dog on behalf of his sibling, has also been unusually quiet since the story broke. On Wednesday Doug Ford finally made a statement, reading from a script and lambasting the media for harassment, but refused to take any questions.

Read: Looking Good on TV

The entire response to the crisis from the Ford brothers has been roundly criticized by media relations and crisis management experts as woeful in the extreme.

“The problem with failing to defend yourself is that people will draw the conclusion that you can’t,” said PR expert Robin Sears on CP24 on Wednesday.

Corporate officers concerned about what to do when their companies become ensnared by bad headlines should look at the Rob Ford story as a case study in what not to do. “You stay in front of the story or you’re framed by the story,” said Sears. “Silence and denial is not going to cut it.”

Read: What keeps CFOs up at night?

The Rob Ford scandal is a good opportunity for brokers to review crisis management plans with clients and go over these three tips.

1) Decide who speaks for your company

Sincerity, by definition, can’t be faked so one of the first steps companies need to take when preparing their media response to a crisis is to choose a spokesperson carefully.

“You don’t want some cold, corporate, starched type up there in a shirt and tie with a somber suit, reading from a script,” says James Gregory, regional director, AON Crisis Management. “They need to come across as genuine and really meaningfully concerned with what’s happening and how the company is going to respond to make sure that consumers of their product are protected.”

John Larsen, principal at Calgary-based Corpen Group Inc. says a public relations person can be an effective spokesperson in situations where a company is simply communicating facts such as evacuation details. However, where there has been loss of life or significant loss of property, someone at an executive level–likely the president or CEO–is more appropriate.

Read: 4 tips for protecting reputation in the digital age

2) “No comment” is never the right answer

When the media come calling, Nicole Harris, media communications coach at Winnipeg-based Maverick Media, says the worst thing a company can do is “turtle” or refuse to comment. While you may not have all the answers right away, “you need to express empathy and concern, you need to show me that you are taking the matter seriously, and you need to be a fact-finder,” she says.

3) Always have a plan

Harris says it can be dangerous to assume the worst will never happen. “At some point and some time, no matter how well prepared or safety trained an organization is, something will happen or could happen, and in those times of emergency and crisis you need to be 10 steps ahead of the media, not 10 minutes behind,” she says.

Read: 6 steps to safer client data

A crisis communications team may include the president or CEO who serves as the ultimate operational authority, a crisis management team leader who coordinates the company’s response, a human resources officer who can work with affected employees and families, the risk manager and legal counsel, Harris suggests. Depending on the company, other areas may need to be represented too.

This article is an abbreviated version of one that appeared in Canadian Insurance Risk Manager Summer 2011. To read the full article, click here.

Follow us on Twitter at @CITopBroker for more on crisis management.