He has eight tattoos, the patience of a saint, and a weird zest for cleaning up crises. Meet the official mouthpiece of the TTC.
On Saturday, July 27, just after midnight, when nine shots splintered the humid calm around Trinity Bellwoods Park and Sammy Yatim crumpled to the floor of a 505 Dundas West streetcar, Twitter wept. And then, very quickly, Twitter cursed the police and demanded, angrily, to know what the hell was going on.
In all that commotion, one voice was conspicuously quiet. For the next 54 hours, @bradTTC—known to most as Brad Ross, the TTC’s affable, accessible, and highly visible spokesperson—stayed mum. It was just after 6 a.m. on Monday morning, as yawning commuters prepared to face early rush hour, that Ross finally broke his silence. “Images from the streetcar are part of the investigation,” he tweeted, in response to a pointed inquiry about whether—and when—the TTC would be releasing video footage from the vehicle’s onboard camera. “TTC does not release CCTV images,” came six hours later, an abrupt reply to another version of the same question, a question Ross would continue to answer throughout the week with increasing terseness.
From any other PR channel, that pattern of crisis management—avoidance followed by curt formality—would be expected. But for Ross, who has more than twice as many Twitter followers (11,614, as of this writing) as @TTChelps, the TTC’s official customer-service feed, this seemed out of character. Unlike most corporate social-media overlords, who trade in hollow branded messaging, Ross has earned the respect of his followers through a combination of directness, transparency, and deft 140-character humour.
When you tweet @bradTTC, you get a reply from the man, not just the organization he represents. If a driver treats you poorly, @bradTTC apologizes. If the sticky remnants of a fountain soda are congealing on St. Clair station’s terrazzo floor, @bradTTC will send in a clean-up crew. If you just don’t get why the last three streetcars you’ve boarded have short-turned, @bradTTC is happy to explain. Here’s the crazy thing: Ross isn’t just some eager, entry-level “community manager.” He’s the TTC’s director of corporate communications, which means that when @bradTTC replies to your messages, that response is coming all the way from the top. And when he’s evasive or unavailable or curiously close-mouthed, his silence speaks volumes.
Before @bradTTC, there was no Twitter, at least at the TTC. Ross, a proud early adopter, glommed on to the relatively new social-media tool in late 2008, not long into his tenure at the commission.
“I didn’t ask for permission,” he explains. “I said, ‘Gary,’”—Webster, then the TTC’s chief general manager—“‘just so you know, there’s this thing called Twitter.’ He said, ‘Okay, that’s great, Brad.’”
From the outset, Ross had free rein over the messages he relayed on behalf of the TTC. Nearly five years and more than 14,000 updates later, that autonomy hasn’t changed, though his audience is exponentially bigger and far more engaged.
As he notes, the public now has “an expectation that information should come more quickly.” When they don’t receive what they’re looking for, people get angry. And when they get angry, they take out their frustration on Ross. It’s hard to feel good about your job performance when any asshole with a smartphone can tell you exactly how you’re failing at that particular moment. But he puts up with it. On an average day, @bradTTC tweets a couple dozen times—personal responses to disgruntled riders, service updates, and his own observations about, say, why Mellencamp is more boss than The Boss.
That may not seem like an exceptionally prolific Twitter output, but social media is not the only part of Ross’s job. He’s the press secretary to the TTC’s White House, and his days can involve anything from attending executive meetings to riding the subway so he might address service problems firsthand. Often, Twitter helps him suss out the kerfuffles that demand his immediate attention—and provides him with efficient feedback. But according to Ross, when big issues hit the fan, “we are usually well into addressing them before we start hearing about them online.” Usually, but not always.
The fatal shooting of an 18-year-old by police on a streetcar is not the only crisis Ross has faced in his career as a professional mouthpiece—nor is it the largest. Before he started at the TTC, he served as the City of Toronto’s manager of media relations and issues management between 2000 and 2008, a stint that bridged the mayoralties of both Mel Lastman and David Miller. In that time, his responsibilities included relaying the city’s official message about the massive blackout of 2003, SARS, and the 2002 and 2009 garbage strikes.
You might think Ross would have PR-PTSD after all those disasters. You’d be wrong. “I enjoy what I do very much,” he says, sitting in the shade of the clamshell after a transit commission meeting at City Hall. “I like the adrenaline and the rush it can provide. It’s not unlike the news business: [I don’t] want bad things to happen, but when they do, I enjoy dealing with them.”
“If there’s one thing Brad enjoys, it’s crisis management,” says Tess Kalinowski, the Star’s transportation reporter, who estimates she talks to Ross at least once a day. “The TTC couldn’t have gotten anybody better for the job, because it’s in a constant state of crisis.”
TTC CEO Andy Byford, his current boss, describes Ross as “an absolute adrenaline junkie. He thrives on the almost-bloodlust of the media.” Which is funny, or possibly Oedipal, since the man who now handles the press for a living grew up in the news business. Ross’s father, Fred, was a photojournalist—first at the Whig-Standard in Kingston, where Brad was born, and later at the Toronto Star.
Ross’s parents split up when he was young, but he saw his dad every other weekend, and they’d often hang out in the downtown Toronto newsroom. He ended up there himself, becoming a copy boy for the Star when he was 17, which meant doing overnight shifts on weekends—before the advent of the TTC’s Blue Night bus network. Some groggy mornings, off work at 4:30 a.m. with no subway service, he’d take a cab all the way home to Pharmacy and Finch.
In his teens, Ross, a diehard metal-head, decided he wanted to be a DJ on Q107. He went to Seneca College for broadcasting and scored a summer job making information-safety videos at the Workers’ Compensation Board, a precursor to the endearing TTC Explainer clips he co-produces with Byford. Later, he worked for an ad agency, and then, finally, the City of Toronto.
Ross doesn’t look like your average social-media evangelist. With his warmth and his goofiness and the part in his salt-and-pepper hair so sharp it looks like a Brylcreem special from the Donna Reed Show, Ross, who turned 50 on July 26, can come across as a real old-fashioned fella. Based on that anachronistic exterior, you also wouldn’t peg him as a tough guy, but he kind of is. As befits a man with such an impressive collection of tattoos, Ross rode motorcycles until he suffered a nasty crash while on a trip with his now-wife, Pam, six years ago. The Pleasantville aura isn’t a façade—he’s also a nurturing dad to four kids, ranging in age from 17 to 21—but beneath it beats the heart of a true badass.
Those traits equip Ross particularly well for his role on the TTC frontlines. Any given ride on the Rocket these days is a mess of delays, diversions, and traffic standstills; with even more construction planned, these problems don’t appear to be going away any time soon. Who better to soothe our jangled nerves than a benevolent, capable father figure who stays calm in an emergency and responds to us in seconds—and doesn’t flinch when we turn into cranky, sucky toddlers after having to wait an extra 15 minutes for a bus?
Everybody likes Brad. It’s hard to find anyone who’ll criticize him—either personally or professionally. Even Steve Munro, a longtime transit advocate and frequent critic of the TTC, has only good things to say about the guy. Both Byford and Kalinowski describe Ross in the same terms. “A consummate professional,” says Byford. “With a consummate sense of humour,” adds Kalinowski.
Still, Kalinowski says she doesn’t always agree with Ross’s choices. “I’ve been at him about how he handled the streetcar shooting. I don’t expect to change his mind, but his desire to protect the investigation, his refusal to answer any questions—especially about the [way] the streetcar [operates]—I don’t think that’s in the public interest.” And yet, she adds, “I think he actually believes in the public’s right to know. But there’s been a policy decision and he has a job to do.”
When I speak to Ross days after the shooting, he’s understandably, if uncharacteristically, reluctant to comment. “Everybody knows what happened,” he begins. “A young man tragically lost his life on board a streetcar. The Special Investigations Unit has invoked its mandate. So there’s not a lot that we can say.” (On August 19, several weeks after our interview, the SIU charged the officer who shot Yatim with second-degree murder.)
What Ross will say is that he’s determined to protect not only the integrity of the investigation and the privacy of the operator involved, but the quality of the information that makes its way to the public. Earlier, he’d alluded to the perils of social media in times of crisis. “In these types of situations, whether it’s a plane crash or severe weather, everybody’s got one of these.” He held up his BlackBerry. “Everybody takes pictures, everybody takes video. They post them instantaneously, often before the organization responsible or the authorities have an opportunity to understand what’s happening so that they can provide context.”
But when I asked if he’s glad Twitter didn’t exist when he was trying to manage SARS, perhaps the most memorable recent example of widespread local and international panic, Ross shook his head. “Suddenly, Toronto was this no-go zone. Anybody who lived here knew that everything was fine, really. I think social media would have been good for the city. I think we could’ve done a lot more at the city with respect to calming fears.”
Calming fears may be a priority for Ross as a public servant, but it’s especially tricky when you’re dealing with a man-made emergency like the death of Yatim, where so many sensitive variables are involved and causality is in question. Mother Nature is easier to blame; she doesn’t have a Twitter feed.
By 7:35 p.m. on July 8, during the great Toronto flood of 2013, @bradTTC was tweeting a steady stream of updates to let people know what was happening throughout the system. He suggested alternate routes; he issued alerts about non-operational stretches of subway; he thanked riders (using emoticons!) for their patience. He and Byford went down to Union Station the next morning to explain, in person, what was going on. In short, even as the subway was down, and the torrential downpour flooded basements across the city, @bradTTC had everything under control.
“The message really was: We didn’t do this!” He laughs. “But you’re judged not so much by what caused it as how you’re managing it. And I thought we managed it really, really well as an organization.”
He’s right. Sure, dingy water may have sloshed through the doors of your jam-packed bus, but hordes of commuters made it home that night—and to work and back in the days that followed. More importantly, in the chaos and confusion of that storm, what Ross provided, with his clear, composed informational updates, was a sense of calm authority. That’s a crucial quality for someone who speaks on behalf of the TTC, an organization with which we have an incredibly intimate relationship, spending nearly as much time in its company as we do our families—and maybe even more than we spend with our closest friends.
Given the sense of familiarity and civic identity that the TTC provides, it’s sometimes easy to lose sight of the fact that our transit system is a sprawling, bureaucratic institution. Most days, @bradTTC fulfills an essential emotional need for his tweeting public—the reassuring, congenial patriarch who salutes us as we board the Red Rocket—but there are occasions when Ross’s role within the bureaucracy demands that he play a different part, that of good corporate citizen. Still, the essence of Ross can be summed up in one of his tattoos. On his left arm, beneath the undulating snake and adjacent to a very regal tiger, there’s a garish grinning skull, smoking a cigarette and wearing a fedora. Underneath its bony jaw are the words “No comment.” In short: Say nothing—or offer a weak bromide—and you’re toast. “In the news business, or in my business, you never say ‘No comment,’” Ross explains, with a grin that mimics his ink. The guy may be well-versed in what not to say, but at his core, Brad Ross really, really wants to talk.
TEN THINGS WE DON’T HATE ABOUT BRAD ROSS
1. A former child actor, he appeared in three TV commercials (for General Motors, Coca-Cola, and Maple Leaf hot dogs) and went on auditions with his old elementary-school pal Mike Myers (yes, that Mike Myers).
2. He jokes that, after years of playing a slide trombone, one of his arms is now several inches longer than the other.
3. He has a bloodhound named Mabel, whose face is tattooed on Ross’s right calf and whose paw print appears on his chest near his heart. He also has a Bassett hound named Mona, but she has yet to inspire a tattoo.
4. He once copy-edited Mordecai Richler.
5. His No. 1 desert island album is AC/DC’s Back in Black. He also likes Dixieland jazz.
6. He went to Paris for the first time last year and fell in love with the art of Toulouse-Lautrec.
7. He’s a vocal Leafs fan.
8. He’s not averse to a good Twitter meme.
9. On a good day, it takes him 28 minutes, door to door, to travel from his house to his office above Davisville station—on
the TTC, natch.
10. He lined up forever to get his picture taken with Kat Von D at the Indigo at Richmond and John.