Stonewalling the media only delays the inevitable

 Photo: CBC.ca

Photo: CBC.ca

A little over five months.

In the end, that's how much time Toronto Mayor was able to buy himself by stonewalling the media when faced with accusations of appearing in a video smoking a crack pipe. 

Ford was swarmed relentlessly by the media for weeks last spring. At his home. At his office. At official events. His response was to ignore their questions. His most fulsome statement, made on May 24, 2013, one week after the allegations first surfaced, included the following quote: "Number one, there's no video, so that's all I can say. I can't comment on something that doesn't exist." 

Otherwise, the mayor's default position was to ignore reporters' queries. 

A crisis is defined as an unexpected event or situation that can:

  • Adversely impact your ability to conduct business or serve your customers,
  • Tarnish your organization's reputation, image or brand,  and
  • Involve the safety of employees or customers. 

The Rob Ford video allegations met at least two of these criteria. The mayor and the city became focal points for global media attention and ridicule for many weeks. 

With his constant stonewalling and with the lack of any video evidence, the story shifted to the back burner. Then came yesterday's bombshell from Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair: The police had obtained a copy of the alleged video from a seized computer. Now, Mayor Ford is back in the spotlight, the subject of relentless media attention. All four Toronto daily newspapers are calling for the mayor to resign. 

By dodging the media, Mayor Ford bought himself a little over five months. And while he may still be clutching onto his office, he has dragged the City of Toronto through the world's tabloid pages - not once, but twice. 

On November 27, 2009, Tiger Woods crashed his vehicle into a fire hydrant, setting off a celebrity-sized crisis that stretched on for months. It wasn't until February 2010 that Woods, who had chosen to stonewall the media, held a tearful press conference, saying, "I have let you down." In the end, Woods lost hundreds of millions of dollars in sponsorships and a divorce settlement. He suffered public humiliation and his golf game tanked for the better part of three years.

On October 1, 2009, talk show host David Letterman had a similar situation with which to contend. In a calculated and preemptive strike, Letterman broke the story of infidelity and extortion that was threatening to make its way into the media. He took control of the story, laid out all the facts and made his apology on his nightly TV show. While the admission was likely extremely unpleasant, Letterman was able to turn it into a one-day news story rather than having it stretch on for months. The result? Letterman retained all of his sponsors, he kept his job and his marriage remains intact. In fact, he recently signed a new two-year contract with CBS. 

In the vast majority of cases, when you stonewall the media in a crisis, you're simply delaying the inevitable. Mayor Ford took a calculated risk that the video would never be made public and that he might be able to deny his way out of the allegations.

As we know, that's not how things turned out. Now, Mayor Ford is in a far worse position than he was in last May. That's because this time, instead of the video being in the hands of alleged drug dealers, it's in the hands of the police. And this time, instead of being able to give him the benefit of the doubt, even his most ardent supporters are seeing the mayor portrayed as a public official who has been caught in a very serious and high-profile lie.