Rob Ford: Communications mystery man

November 18, 2013 — From a communications point of view, the Rob Ford spectacle is hard to explain but fascinating to watch. Beyond a morbid interest in watching a disaster occur in real time (don’t we all have that?), it’s professionally fascinating to observe a public personality who seems to defy all the laws of communications best practice yet remain standing.

Rob FordFord, as of this writing, has amassed a catalogue of sins that would easily have taken down politicians of greater skill. A good summary of what he’s done in the past two weeks alone comes from Ivor Tossell in the Globe and Mail:

“This is the mayor who’s admitted to buying illegal drugs, to smoking crack, to drinking and driving, who made graphic remarks about his wife and then made her stand shame-faced in front of the global media as he mumbled a non-apology. This is the man who faced the release of police interviews in which his own staff described an erratic, abusive boss who’d go MIA from work, frequently sound intoxicated and send taxpayer-paid staffers to do his errands and buy his booze.”

Ford has consistently maintained that he will not step down as the Mayor of Toronto, even if most of that position’s powers are stripped from him. Tossell points out that such a move would do nothing to diminish Ford’s celebrity influence, and may in fact increase it. Communications strategists in different parts of the world must be examining Ford and Toronto today as a case study, trying to understand the phenomenon.

Nick Cowell of Citizen Optimum wrote an equally insightful column observing that Ford is providing a text book example of how NOT to handle a crisis. Nick’s point is that anything Ford would do now to salvage his mayoralty is too little, too late. He has squandered what opportunity he had to change the course of events.

That may well be, but let me offer this interpretation: Ford knows full well that he has “lost” the mayoralty (at least for now) and is turning this to his advantage for the October 2014 mayoral election. Ford probably has people already parsing the public statements and private rumours surrounding the handful of people who may run against him next year. Ford’s strategy seems to be to position himself, again, as the outsider versus the elite, corporate, too powerful big-city interests. The actions of Toronto City Council will be the primary evidence that he was dissed by those who don’t understand, like, or respect the politics and the people he represents.

In other words, the Ford mayoralty narrative arc has already bent. Mass media, pay attention: this is no longer a story about whether Ford will survive as Mayor in 2013. It’s now about whether he will stage a successful comeback as Mayor in 2014.

Like Sarah Palin after 2008, Ford will remain a public figure in the years to come, media savvy, ever present, and threatening to all those who defeated him now. Unlike Sarah Palin, he may well command enough electoral support to occupy the Mayor’s chair once again. Caveat emptor.



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