Communications advice for Stephen Harper and Rob Ford

Andy Radia
November 4, 2013

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Toronto Mayor Rob Ford are doing a great job giving Canadians examples of how not to handle a political crisis.

In Ottawa, the prime minister is embroiled in a scandal whereby his former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, gifted a sitting legislator, Sen. Mike Duffy, $90,000, apparently in a bid to make a political problem go away.

Harper says he knew nothing about it — polls indicate Canadians don't believe him.

In Toronto, Mayor Ford has made international headlines for reports of his alleged alcoholism and for a court-protected video that apparently shows him smoking a substance from a crack-pipe — many are calling on him to step down.

[ Related: Mayor Rob Ford’s intentionally-hollow apology does more harm than good ]

Time will tell if their political careers are suddenly coming to an end, but's it's clear that Canadians — and in Ford's case, Torontonians — aren't buying their stories.

We sought the services of political communication expert Marcel Wieder about what communication strategies Harper and Ford could employ to save their jobs.

His firm, Aurora Strategies, specializes in — among other things — crisis communications.

Here's his advice to Prime Minister Harper:

His admission that there is a problem is only a starting point, he needs to go farther.

I would say: 'I made a mistake appointing these individuals. They came with great promise only to disappoint me and Canadians by their actions. When I first ran for Prime Minister I said I wanted an elected Senate. These actions only confirm more than ever that this needs to be a priority. By the end of my mandate I hope to deliver on real Senate reform. Canadians can then judge me on how I responded to the challenge.'

I would then start selling that message across the country with speeches in all the provinces and territories. I would also convene a meeting of First Ministers to break the logjam and I would have my Members and Ministers fan out across the country and get people onboard.

As media averse as Harper is to talking with reporters I think he needs to face the press and demonstrate that he is in control and challenge other politicians and personalities to join him or be part of the problem status quo.

If he doesn't start putting forward his own plan and continues to blame the courts, opposition politicians and the media he will not enjoy the confidence of Canadians who have become fed up with the Senate scandal and want finality on this issue that has dogged them for decades.

And here's what he would tell the Toronto mayor:

[Sunday's] apology may help with some of his supporters and the Ralph Kramden routine is starting to tire on most.

His appearance on his own show and Oakley this morning are the right thing to do. You need to be out front and not get tempted to hide out in your office, which is what he has done over that last few months. A bunker mentality is the last thing you need.

He still has not answered the substance of the accusation. Until he addresses them in a meaningful and with a reasonable explanation no one will be satisfied.

The challenge to hide behind "it's before the courts" is a sham and almost all media know that, so stop repeating it. It's getting [him] no where because the press has exposed it as a dodge.

Also don't pick a fight with the police. They have usually been in the Mayor's corner but if they believe they are being vilified for doing their job they will turn on you and it won't be pretty. They have far more credibility than any politician.

Many politicians have sought help while in office. From drinking to substance abuse there have been politicians such as Marion Barry, Ralph Kline, Gordon Campbell and others who took timeouts to get help.

As anyone familiar with rehabilitation will tell you, the first step is to admit that you have a problem. Voters like redemption politics and they will forgive if you admit and get treated for a problem. Once he has done that he can go forward and proclaiming the new Rob Ford 2.0 better than ever and ready to deliver for taxpayers.

What do you this of Wieder's advice?

Let us know in your thoughts in the comment section below.

(Photo courtesy of the Canadian Press)

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