Stepping up and taking responsibility is the right thing to do in a crisis, but Gov. Chris Christie’s unprecedented, 107-minute press conference was so far over the top that it defies logic.
Yes, Christie had to control the damage from revelations that his administration ordered the revenge-closing of traffic lanes at the George Washington Bridge, but standing behind a podium for nearly two hours and taking shots from a media mob is poor crisis management and exhibits incredibly poor judgment.
Droning on for what seemed like an eternity, it’s almost as if the governor thought he could talk the scandal away. The State House charade was so long that reporters started repeating their own questions. And where did that podium come from? He looked like a witness being interrogated by a prosecuting attorney in a court of law.
Christie, appearing somber and contrite, fielded more than 90 questions. Things got so bad that at one point a reporter asked a question about a news story that had just broken as the governor was talking. This is but one problem with responding to a massive crisis when all the facts are not available.
Given the uncertainty about where this mess will end up, this situation called for a public appearance by the governor. However, given the fluid nature of an ongoing investigation, Christie should have limited the event to 10 minutes and passed out a tightly worded three-paragraph statement.
By doing what he did, the governor tossed himself into an ocean full of man eating political sharks and blood-thirsty national media.
The tactic of a protracted appearance also tries to position Christie as the victim. He claims (and it better be true) that he had no advance knowledge of the lane closures and was embarrassed and humiliated by the bizarre episode. But does the victim approach really hold water? In my view, the people traveling in New Jersey who got stuck in traffic for hours are the real victims.
There are many reasons why Christie should have kept the press conference short and sweet. Here are a few:
- Before the event unfolded, the United States attorney in New Jersey had begun a preliminary inquiry into the lane closing. Who knows where that will end up?
- Just down the hall at the N.J. State House, a former Christie associate who was actually involved in the lane closings was “taking the fifth” before Democratic legislators investigating the matter. In some cases, people refuse to testify when they have something to hide.
- The State Assembly had made it known the day after the press conference it was going to release an additional 900 pages of documents turned over by a high school friend of Christie’s who worked at the Port Authority. How could the Christie administration predict what might come out in those documents?
- The email documents that were released the day before the press conference were heavily redacted. How could Christie and his staff be assured that the non-redacted emails would not surface?
Bad Judgment Call
Based on the facts reported by The New York Times and other national media, it appears Christie had an opportunity to get ahead of the story before the bombshell emails hit the press.
A month ago, officials from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, who run the bridge, said the lane closings had delayed EMT vehicles and were conducted “abruptly, secretively and against the authority’s protocols.”
About the same time, according to Christie, the governor gathered his staff and asked them if anyone had anything to do with the closings. They all reported that “there was no information other than what we already knew.”
This is where Christie should have smelled a “rat” and ordered an immediate top-to-bottom review of the entire matter. If he had taken this step proactively before any additional public disclosure, he would have been on the record indicating he had taken the appropriate steps to address the issue aggressively. This would have also put him in control of the situation.
Instead, the emails hit the press and the dam burst.
A Political Disaster
At this point, Christie has cleaned house and thrown everyone under the bus who he believes had anything to do with the scandal. For those who see the glass as half full (and if it’s really true that the governor had no idea what was happening) the public might eventually forgive him. This will be particularly true for die-hard Republicans who think Christie is the party’s best choice for the 2016 presidential nomination.
In my view, given all the moving pieces in this quagmire and more shoes that are likely to drop, these events are a political disaster for Christie. Does anyone really believe that when the Presidential primary season rolls around the American public will have forgotten these images?
Christie is governor of a heavily populated, congested state that is often portrayed as corrupt. The governor did nothing to shake his image as a bully when he quipped at the press conference, “Politics ain’t bean bag, OK?”
That type of insensitive response will never play on the campaign trail in states like Iowa and South Carolina where Christie will need primary victories to be considered as a viable Presidential candidate.
Based on his crisis communications management to date, the question remains: does Chris Christie have the political and intellectual gravitas to be considered for the highest office in the United States?
In the final analysis, when all the facts are in, the court of public opinion will decide Christie’s fate.
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Richard E. Nicolazzo is managing partner of Nicolazzo & Associates, a strategic communications and crisis management firm headquartered in Boston, Mass.