May 2013: The Worst Video Media Disaster

The mayor of the fourth largest city in North America was accused of smoking crack cocaine by three journalists who viewed an unreleased video earlier this month. Not just any mayor, but Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, long known as a bombastic loudmouth who isn’t afraid to go on the offensive.

But in this case he didn’t go on offense for several days. His lack of doing so was noteworthy since it was inconsistent with his previous actions—and it led large swaths of the public to reach the conclusion that he’s guilty of at least something.

Here’s the story: On May 16, journalists for an American website and a Canadian newspaper said they had been shown a “secret” video of Rob Ford appearing to smoke crack. The next day, Ford faced reporters and issued this uninspired denial:

If you were falsely accused of smoking crack, wouldn’t you issue a stronger denial? Eight days later—on May 24—Ford finally spoke to the media again to issue another denial. But trucks could have driven through the holes in his vague statement:

Notice specifically what he said at the beginning of this statement: “I do not use crack cocaine. Nor am I an addict of crack cocaine.” He used the present tense (“I do not use…) rather than the past tense (“I have never used…”), a Clintonesque and lawyerly verbal construction that guilty people frequently hide behind. Nor, for the record, had anyone asked whether he was an “addict,” making that statement downright bizarre.

The vacuum caused by Ford’s lack of a solid response led to other charges, including a possible connection to murder. His administration is a mess. His chief of staff, press secretary, and deputy press secretary have all resigned. It will be interesting to see if Ford can survive this scandal—and if so, whether he can get anything done. True to his defiant nature, Ford has pledged to seek a second term.

A note about the Obama Administration’s IRS scandal

The other leading candidate for the worst video disaster of the month was the scandal involving the IRS and its targeting of Tea Party-affiliated groups. The particular moment worth citing was when Lois Lerner, the director of the Internal Revenue Service’s tax-exempt organizations office, disclosed at a meeting that her office had indeed been guilty of such targeting.

In addition to other reasons, that moment is worthy of mention because of the ham-fisted way she tried to disclose the scandal. Instead of notifying the press, disclosing everything she knew, taking responsibility and appearing forthright, she tried to slip it out casually during an otherwise routine meeting of the American Bar Association. Worse, she planted the question by arranging for it to be asked by an attendee at the meeting.

Attendees at the meeting were shocked by her bombshell disclosure. Those meetings are usually uneventful; several attendees remarked afterward that it seemed like an odd venue to bring it up.

From a PR perspective, Ms. Lerner used one of the worst possible techniques to disclose damaging information—and in so doing, she diluted her own trustworthiness while increasing the public’s suspicion. This was never going to be an easy scandal for her—or the Obama Administration—to manage. Ms. Lerner made a difficult task even harder.

Rob Ford photo credit: Gawker

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