Ethical PR, strong journalism and greater participation are keys to better governance
Toronto’s long local nightmare is over. After generating global attention for the unethical and illegal behaviour of Rob Ford, the outgoing mayor – and the city’s incomprehensible inability to remove him from office – Toronto City Hall is in saner, wiser hands.
Why is this topic relevant to an international public relations blog? When practised at its best, PR is the discipline that aims to build mutual understanding and trust, and to aid in the essential accountability between leaders, organizations and society. Yet the Ford administration used public relations as a tool of deceit and distortion, often with alarming success. We cannot assume this will not happen again in Canada; indeed, it occurs too frequently from leaders of governments, businesses and other institutions all over the world. What can we learn from Toronto’s example?
Demand PR at its best – not its worst
For readers outside Toronto, where can I begin? The Ford phenomenon defies easy description. It is a story of multilayered irony: a man who grew up wealthy poses as a blue-collar hero; a bigot, homophobe and misogynist is elected in one of the world’s most diverse cities; a mayor casting himself as a hard-working champion of the taxpayer gets away with part-time hours, flouting conflict-of-interest rules, skipping council meetings to coach football and even with commandeering a city bus for his players. I could go on. All this happened before the revelations of drug use and associations with violent criminals – and he almost got away with those too.
How did he pull this off? I hate to say it, but he used public relations.
What was Ford’s PR strategy? Whether carefully conceived or (more likely) intuitive, here are some core principles:
- Hide from accountability, and then play the victim. Early in his term, the mayor’s office broke with previous practice by refusing to publish his daily schedule. Not surprisingly, journalism at city hall became a constant stakeout, as chronicled recently by the Globe and Mail. As allegations of scandal grew, the mayor stopped answering questions, and then curried public sympathy for being hounded by the press.
- When challenged, go on the attack. As stories of public drunkenness, inappropriateness toward women and then crack cocaine use started to circulate, the mayor and his councillor brother invariably went on the attack. Journalists with legitimate questions were “maggots” and “pathological liars.” Ford implied another one was a pedophile just for being near the mayor’s home (investigating Ford’s attempt to purchase nearby land). Finally, the Fords undermined the integrity of the Chief of Police, seeking his dismissal for having a political agenda when he announced that he had viewed the video of the mayor’s drug use.
- Blur the line between exaggeration and lies. Many politicians blur this line, but in Canada few have done so as skillfully or as frequently as the Fords. The most outrageous were his claims of having saved taxpayers “one billion dollars” (backed by a series of fanciful calculations), along with his boasts that he had “built subways,” even though the only subway expansion in his term had been initiated before he came to office.
By giving ourselves – and future generations – the tools to identify and understand public relations at its worst, we have a better chance of demanding – and receiving – public relations at its best. Civics education for children is particularly critical, so that they become discerning, engaged citizens.
Strengthen the culture of democracy – through accountability and participation
Two key dimensions of democracy are accountability and participation. Vertical accountability involves holding leaders accountable for their decisions, actions and inaction. As theorists Diamond and Morlino write in Assessing the Quality of Democracy, “If voters are to be able to hold their public officials and ruling parties accountable… they must be engaged, knowledgeable about the issues and the performance of those in power, and they must turn out to vote in large numbers.”
One can take solace at the demise of the Ford administration, and the fact that the deceit and alleged criminal behaviour of the incumbent were brought to light by skilled investigative journalism. Sadly, our relief must be tempered by the grim reality that until the courageous Chief of Police revealed evidence of the mayor’s misbehaviour, Ford and his enablers had paid little price in public opinion for evading legitimate questions while levelling ugly smears against reporters and opponents. While voter turnout in the recent Toronto election was higher than normal, the long-term trend of political participation in Canada is one of decline.
Democracy is both a structure and a culture. Even when the structures of democracy are strong, the culture of democracy can be weak.
Greater citizen participation is the key to positive change. Civic leaders – both inside and outside government – can overcome apathy and cynicism through public relations that fosters robust and innovative citizen engagement. Canadian cities are getting better at this, and the results are better policies and programs.
Support robust and credible media organizations
The Ford case study shows that journalism can be a vital instrument of democracy. It is troubling, therefore, that the credibility of the media is weak at the very time we need it to be strong. The historic threat to the classic journalistic business model has decimated the resources of many newsrooms; and at the same time, the fierce competition for audiences has contributed to the tabloidization of journalism, with a short-term gain in audience offset by a long-term decline in credibility.
Part of the challenge, however, is what we as citizens are willing to accept. The digital age – notwithstanding its potential to enhance transparency – has made it easier for politicians and their press secretaries to hide behind opaque email messaging, and also to take biased and distorted messaging directly to their publics. Those who decry media biases should be equally vocal in attacking such trends, which inject even more bias into our public discourse. Professional journalism, practised within clear codes of ethics, must be celebrated and supported.
The promise of ‘no more Fords’ may be wishful thinking. While diminished as a force, Rob Ford is still in politics. His brother was the runner-up in the mayor’s race. Elsewhere, the world will continue to see leaders who pay lip service to democracy while undermining democratic governance. However, when countries, cities and citizens can strengthen both the structures and cultures of democracy, there is hope. Ethical public relations, strong journalism and greater citizen participation can help make it possible.
About the Author:
Daniel Tisch is the President and CEO for Argyle Public Relationships. He is one of Canada’s best-known communicators, having worked at senior levels in government before embarking on a 20-year consulting career in which he has advised CEOs, boards, government leaders and marketers for some of the world’s biggest brands.