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Adam Giambrone: Waking Up In A Public Relations Nightmare

February 12, 2010

I honestly don’t know what’s come over me.  Over the past few days I have been left scratching my head in a state of disbelief.  The culprit of my perplexity?  The now infamous Chair of the TTC, harbinger for Transit City, City Councillor for Ward 18, once Mayoralty hopeful and holder of his very own “sex scandal – Adam Giambrone. At 32, Giambrone rose swiftly through the political ranks.  Over the past few days, millions have watched as he rocketed back down to new social lows.  Despite all this, Adam Giambrone now has one of the most recognizable names in Toronto.  His story is surely far from over.

Prior to last December, I wasn’t really familiar with young Giambrone.  To be fair, I had been living in Montreal for the past five years.  Now, for better or worse, his name has been etched into my mind along with the minds of countless more.  Let’s take a look at how we got here.   By many accounts, Giambrone was the NDP’s rising star.  In 2003, he was elected to the Toronto Council at age 26.  Going on to be named president of the federal NDP, later Now Magazine appointed Adam “Best City Politician” in 2008.

A Young Councillor in Big Shoes

Often being referred to as Mayor David Miller’s protégé and close friend, Miller appointed Giambrone as the Chair of the TTC, a role not taken lightly as public transportation was one of Miller’s key platform issues during his 2003 and 2006 election campaigns. Following budget cuts suffered under former Premier Mike Harris’ Common Sense Revolution, the TTC has been beleaguered by financial turmoil since 1996.  Currently the “Red Rocket”  is one of the largest public transportation systems in North America that does not receive provincial or federal funding.  As a result, the TTC garnishes 70% of its operational revenue from fare boxes.  Despite this, the TTC began to see expansion with Giambrone at the helm and, among other improvements, a new website was launched, next vehicle arrival information systems were put into place, and several stations were refurbished.

The first cracks began to appear on March 16, 2007 when Giambrone unveiled his plan for Transit City.  An aggressive plan to expand the city’s public transportation coverage by constructing 120km of electric light rail.  Feverous opposition to the plan has come mainly from two camps; fiscal conservatives who are enraged by the plan’s budget as it has ballooned from $6.1 billion $8.3 billion and by the standard showing of NIMBYs.

Things really started looking bad when, on Jan 9th 2010, a TTC rider snapped a picture of a ticket collector sleeping on the job.  By the 22nd, the TTC was engulfed in a media firestorm.  Even amongst the public’s outrage, on Feb 1st Giambrone officially announced his intentions to run for mayor.  Despite the pollsters’ insistence that he didn’t stand a chance, whether he was being criticized by political pundits for his YouTube video which had been “leaked” in January or by those like Mayoral candidate George Smitherman who called for his resignation as TTC chair, Adam Giambrone’s name could be found wherever one turned.

The Short-Lived Campaign

Seeing himself as the only candidate who was completely comfortable with Web 2.0 and social media, the Giambrone camp launched an aggressive online campaign.  Although Giambrone had clearly made stances of several issues other than public transportation, it was hard to distance himself from the public’s anger.  That was until Feb 8th when he publicly admitted to having an “inappropriate relationship with a young woman”.  This followed allegations by Kristen Lucas, a university student and aspiring model, who claimed that the pair had a sexual relationship with encounters taking place at city hall.  Lucas also made claims that Giambrone had shared sensitive information about the TTC and of his dealings within the council’s chambers.  Giambrone asserted that the relationship was not sexual.  Though Adam is not married, he had made public appearances with Sarah McQuarrie, described as his long-term, live-in partner.  After two days of near silence, Giambrone made a brief public statement followed by a statement from his assistant who notified the press of Giambrone’s withdrawal from the race.

The Missteps and Miscalculations

For everything that Adam Giambrone claimed to have known about social media, he made several fatal errors that could have been averted if he had only adhered to a few basic principals of good PR.

  • Lay it on the tableGiambrone was quick to tell people of his strengths but feared acknowledging his weaknesses.  Although this rang  true throughout his entire campaign, he seemed reluctant to publicly address all of the allegations and to admit to his mistakes.
  • Clear the airGiambrone could not afford to get caught in anything more that is hidden.  He should have taken the opportunity to come clean when the opportunity was given to him by the Toronto Star on Feb 8th.  Initially denying the claims only hurt him further.  This was his fatal mistake.
  • Hiding away fixes nothing – Once the media has gotten a hold of an issue that has legs, reporters will do anything they can to feed that fire.  If the person who is at the heart of the issue cannot be reached for comment, others will step in to fill the void.  In Giambrone’s case that void was happily filled by Kristen Lucas, his political opponents, and those willing to speculate.
  • Make yourself accessible and practice transparency when holding a press conferenceBy all accounts, Giambrone’s press conference did more harm than good.  Again, it would have been best to come clean by publically addressing every allegation as opposed to offering blanket apologies.  Running from the questions of onlooking reporters was a huge mistake.  In many people’s eyes, the story had already been told  and they were then looking for Giambrone to show some type of real accountability.  From its setting, unrehearsed delivery, rushed nature, down to the tears in Giambrone’s eyes, the entire press conference lacked professionalism and was held almost as an after thought.

The axiom “even bad publicity is good publicity” is not intrinsically true.  To bring this into reality, you must claim ownership over your bad press and redefine it within the context of the brand you wish to portray.  A sex scandal involving an unmarried 32 year old man is hardly a career ending situation.  By shying away from the issue, Giambrone passed on the opportunity to demonstrate his skills in crisis management.  Skills which were already in question based upon his performance as chair of the TTC.  It is baffling that as the TTC union walked around like it runs the commission, Giambrone still felt it necessary to take a few days to himself following the announcement of his withdrawal which he was unable to deliver himself.  It has since been reported that on Feb 11th, Adam and Ms. McQuarrie had left the country to go on a vacation.  I am sure it will be one to remember.

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