During a crisis, an organization or individual begins to hear two little voices whispering into each ear. No, I don’t mean an angel and a devil. I’m talking about a PR expert and a lawyer.
Just ask Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. Since May 17, when New York-based gossip site Gawker published a story saying its editor had watched a video in which a man who appeared to be Ford was smoking crack cocaine, the embattled official presumably has been hearing an earful of advice on how to deal with the accusation. The video has yet to be produced for public consumption, but Gawker and the Toronto Star, where two reporters also claim to have viewed it, say the video is being shopped by individuals known to the police and allegedly connected to the city’s drug trade.
For whatever reason, Ford seems to have chosen to listen to only the legal advice, dodging reporters for more than a week, and issuing a statement that left too many unanswered questions which he then refused to answer on the advice of his legal counsel. In the court of public opinion, he has essentially taken the Fifth — “I refuse to answer on the grounds it may incriminate me.”
When public opinion is judge and jury, there are no rules of evidence, and the accused is guilty until proven innocent. When Ford initially hid behind “no comment” on drug allegations for a week, it was the rough equivalent of a guilty plea.
The public believes that politicians and celebrities must fulfill a higher expectation of transparency than ever before. From the Clintons appearing on 60 Minutes to address extramarital affairs, to Tiger Woods’s press conference about sex addiction, people demand that public figures come clean. If they do so humbly and sincerely in the public’s eyes, an enormous capacity for forgiveness awaits.
In Ford’s statement, the mayor said, “I do not use crack cocaine, nor am I an addict of crack cocaine. I cannot comment on a video that I have never seen or does not exist.” He failed to note whether he had ever tried the drug. And only those who are privy to his private counsel can answer why he made that choice.
No doubt, legal issues must sometimes take precedence. If a crisis threatens the very existence of an organization, it makes sense. After all, there is no reputation to protect if there is no organization. Yet, Ford’s seemingly mishandled crisis illustrates the role legal advice can play in leading executives and companies toward a guilty verdict in the court of public opinion.
The damage to Ford’s reputation is enormous and likely permanent. While there may be no jail time in his future, he also may see the end of his political career.
In crises, CEOs may hear the PR voice say “come clean” and the legal voice say “come clean and you will be sued to within an inch of your life and the Board of Directors will be furious.” While it’s easier to use the potential legal threat to avoid the issue at hand, leaders who’ve steered companies or organizations through crises and successfully rebuilt reputations tend to be ones who (within reason) put legal risks in perspective.
Consider the 2008 listeriosis outbreak in Canada Maple Leaf Foods faced with packaged meats. That resulted in 22 deaths.
Maple Leaf CEO Michael McCain was credited with opening up his company to an extraordinary degree of scrutiny, with daily press conferences, constant social media updates, employee teleconferences, analyst technical briefings, plant tours and YouTube videos. The company hired a Chief Food Safety Officer.
And indeed, there was a legal risk: Maple Leaf was eventually sued for $250 million. It settled for about 10 per cent of that.
What’s more noteworthy is how quickly the company was able to rebound to profitability and respectability. McCain told the Globe and Mail newspaper he wanted to be true to the brand: “It was simply doing what was right; and doing what was right came directly from the company’s ingrained values. This is not about some contrived strategy. It’s just about a tragic situation and an organization’s desire to make it right.”
It’s hard to calculate but without question McCain preserved far more than $25 million worth of the company’s good name.
When under attack, our natural instinct is to duck. But in the court of public opinion, there can be no doubt that the person or company in the crosshairs must open up, early and often.
Could some legal issues arise? Possibly. But we know the reputational issues will be there 100 per cent of the time.