John O’Leary on Exposure and Publicity

by Katy James

4 min read

Co-Pilot Story Series, Media, News, PR

“You have to go away to come back.”

On September 24, Pilot will host the next event in our Co-Pilot Storytelling Series, bringing together three high-profile panelists to discuss the ins and outs of crisis communications.

In advance of Doug Ford Is My Co-Pilot, we offer a preview of our panelists’ thoughts on how to handle the modern scandal.

John O’Leary

First up: John O’Leary, Manager of Public Affairs and Communications for Coca-Cola Canada. John is an expert in publicity and issues management, crisis communications and public affairs. A former advisor to Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, John also headed the issues management team of former Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty.

Pilot: Lanny Davis, an advisor to Bill Clinton during the Lewinsky scandal, once said: “Tell it early, tell it all, tell it yourself.” Do you think full disclosure is the best policy when it comes to handling a crisis?

JO: Yes.  Every issue and situation is different and a strategy needs to be flexible to the circumstances, but generally speaking, being open and as honest as possible is preferable to the alternatives.  You’re not always going to be able to tell it all, you may not be able to tell it yourself, but being honest and forthright is, I think, the best policy.

Pilot: How does social media affect the way we discover, report and respond to scandals?

JO: Oh ya, like, hashtag HugeImpact, right! More than ever, stories are breaking over social media first, and more people are engaging more directly and personally through social media. Journalists themselves are using social media to share their reports and their story developments in real time. A crisis plan today must contemplate social media as an integrated component in the overall crisis strategy. It’s not something that’s done in addition to the plan or as a nice-to-do, but rather the plan itself needs to be built with social media in mind at the front end. Today social media is Crisis 101 and needs to be included in a way that’s meaningful and is treated with the respect it deserves.

Pilot: As the media landscape changes, with fewer outlets and column inches for investigative journalism, do you think we’ll see a change in how companies, politicians and high profile individuals handle crises?

JO: Yes, to an extent.  I think the tactics will change but the strategies will largely stay the same.  If you’re facing a crisis you’ll still want to be honest, open, solution-oriented and accountable.

Pilot: What do you think Toronto Mayor Rob Ford can teach us about crisis communications?

JO: On the TV show Louie, one of Jack Dahl’s three rules of show business is that you have to go away to come back. I think that’s what may be happening here. The recent poll that showed Rob Ford in second place in the mayoral race would have been unthinkable a year ago or even a few months ago. His decision to step away from the spotlight, admit he needed help and enter addictions treatment could prove to be a pivotal moment for him in his story, win or lose. The lesson is that the underlying root issues need to be addressed openly, earnestly before a subject can really move forward.

Pilot: In your opinion, which companies, politicians and celebrities are best at dealing with bad news?

JO: I think Naheed Nenshi, the Mayor of Calgary, showed exemplary leadership in the 2013 flood crisis, the worst crisis his city has ever seen.

I think Bill Clinton did a great job, especially in the face of a national tragedy – the bombing in Oklahoma City is one of the highest-profile examples. President Clinton would routinely visit communities devastated by natural disasters like tornadoes and walk amid the destruction, visiting and speaking with ordinary Americans who had just lost everything. He was able to demonstrate genuine empathy that sent a message not only to the people affected directly, but to the nation, of hope and unity.

I think George Clooney may be the best celebrity example for two reasons. I am by no means a George Clooney expert, but I think he and his publicist do an excellent job of using humour to diffuse a lot of issues that arise around him. He uses humor in a way that is instructive. And, if there are falsehoods published around him, he is very good at being assertive and pushing back in seeking to correct the record and holding journalists accountable.

Stay tuned for answers from Christopher Eby of Sussex Strategy Group and Robyn Doolittle, best-selling author of Crazy Town: The Rob Ford Story.