When the elevator doesn’t go all the way up

This post was written by Marlo Taylor, Senior Vice-President and Practice Lead, Healthcare at energi PR in Toronto.

So, here’s the thing. I was at the Economic Club of Canada’s luncheon yesterday. The keynote speaker? Mayor Rob Ford. I admit, I was there out of morbid curiosity. I had yet to experience the Ford phenomenon in person and I wanted to see it for myself. As a PR practitioner and tax-paying Torontonian, I have been following Mr Ford with that looking-through-my-fingers anxiety I usually reserve for crime shows and Drew Barrymore movies.

As it turned out, our esteemed municipal leader arrived more than an hour late for his speech. My table was auctioning off the butter plate by the time lunch and Mr Ford arrived and we’d run through our entire combined repertoire of Ford jokes and impressions. At least we didn’t leave. One full table did.

When he eventually took to the podium, Mr Ford told us he had been stuck in an elevator. And, it seemed, no one believed him. Of course he was stuck in an elevator – wink, wink, nudge, nudge – and we settled in for a canned speech offering us the Ford Nation’s brash, unapologetic version of his accomplishments and contributions to our city. And thank goodness he did. Here I was, believing he had become an unmitigated and parasitic liability on the fine name and well being of our city when all the while he was saving us BILLIONS at every turn and we were living in unprecedented prosperity. Definitely good to know. My bad.

But watching him in action and thinking of him as a client and me as his PR advisor I was struck by a few thoughts. Importantly, it reinforced what I have come to know as immutable truths about public relations.

Most notably:

  • Tell the friggin’ truth. Your reputation is one lie or half truth from being a late night talk show joke. Tell the truth until it hurts. And, when it hurts, learn your lesson, say you are sorry and do better next time.
  • Use good manners. Always. There is no excuse for being late, lazy or lackadaisical. Please, thank you and the whole list of things our moms taught us go a long way to establishing a reputation as dependable, reliable and credible.
  • Understand and respect your audience. Time is valuable. Your time. My time. An audience’s time. If I offer you an opportunity to speak, respect the chance. I’m giving you my time. It’s valuable and I expect you to be relevant, respectful and real.
  • Answer the question. Elephants in the room (and no, that’s not a Ford joke) will continue to dog and flat out squash any PR progress you think you are making until you address the issues head on. Be brave and be transparent. Avoiding questions means you are avoiding accountability. Don’t do that. Own your situation and messages, whatever they may be.

Mr Ford may well have been stuck in that elevator. It’s an unfortunate development in addition to his recent public troubles. But the principles above would have meant that the elevator was a small, laughable glitch a crowd of reasonable business folk would have easily forgiven. But when you don’t adhere to the basics of good communication, you remove yourself from the bank of good will and help ensure that your messages fall on deaf ears. Sadly, Mr Ford’s elevator seems firmly stuck in the PR basement.