If you’re a politician and have been accused of doing something that threatens your job and reputation try to avoid the issues confronting you. Lay low, be quiet and hope the crisis will go away. This is not the advice a communications professional should give a politician when a career threatening political problem engulfs them. It is the strategy Rob Ford, the Mayor of Toronto, is using to avoid his latest controversy.
On Thursday night Gawker editor-in-chief John Cook published a blog post which claims Rob Ford smokes crack cocaine.
Cook claims he knows this because he saw smart phone video of it. The video he watched was filmed by, and is supposedly being held by, local crack dealers who want $200,000 to release it.
Apparently, the video Cook saw, was seen independently by two reporters from the Toronto Star, and shows Ford calling the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada a “fag” and the football team Ford coaches “just minorities.”
Understandably, the existence of this video, which will likely become public at some point, is a major threat to Ford’s mayoralty.
So, what should Rob Ford do? As far as I can tell, he has two options.
Option one, if he doesn’t smoke crack and hang out with street gang members, is emphatically deny he smokes crack and the possibility a credible video exists. It might also include suing the Toronto Star.
Option two is admit a video might exist and explain what he might be doing in it. If it involves drug use with street gangs and making discriminatory comments then he should apologize. His apology should be supported by concrete steps he’s going to take to address his problems.
If Ford does use crack and has been caught on video, but refuses to admit it, he, in theory, will destroy any remaining credibility he has.
People are usually willing to forgive if they see genuine contrition. If his strategy is vague denial until he is forced to acknowledge he was hanging out with crack dealers, assuming he was, he risks losing some of his core support. There’s no doubt some of his people will continue to support him regardless of what he does, but many will abandon him if the allegations continue or a proven true in the court of public opinion.
Two days in to the crisis not addressing it seems to be the direction of Ford’s strategy. He cancelled his weekly radio show on Sunday. He has said nothing other than the story is “ridiculous.” His brother has offered nothing other than “I have never seen my brother involved with anything like coke.”
No one has actually categorically denied Mayor Ford smokes crack. No one has said, “Rob Ford does not smoke crack cocaine.” Rob Ford has not said, “I do not smoke crack cocaine.”
The problem with the dismissive, non-denial, avoidance approach is that Ford’s crack crisis isn’t going away. The video will probably be released at some point.
If it’s released and it’s fake because Ford doesn’t smoke crack then he’ll have wasted two, three or four weeks not denying he smokes crack. In the three weeks people will start asking themselves why isn’t he denying he smokes crack? Why isn’t he denying the existence or authenticity of the video?
Ford’s proxies haven’t even denied the video is inauthentic. The best they’ve done is attempt to sow doubt about it’s authenticity. Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday has questioned how John Cook and the Star reporters know the video is real. He has not said, at least that I’ve heard, “the video is fake.”
The only way I see the avoidance approach working is if the video never surfaces. If the video doesn’t enter the public domain the mayor can try and avoid questions about it for as long as it takes the story to fall out of the news cycle in the absence of the video. Questions will linger, but Ford supporters will maintain their capacity for a kind of reverse plausible deniability.
Ford supporters, in the absence of concrete knowledge about his alleged drug use, can continue to repeat the lines they’ve been using. ‘Have you seen the video? How do you know it’s not fake? How can you trust drug dealers trying to make a buck at someone else’s expense? Drug dealers are evil. How do the Star reporters know the video is real? I’ve never seen Rob Ford test a substance he smokes, verify it as crack cocaine, stick it in a pipe, put it to his mouth, heat it and inhale the subsequent smoke.’
The funny thing is Rob Ford doesn’t have plausible deniability. He knows what he has and hasn’t done. Maybe that’s why he’s so quiet?