Christie’s House of Cards

Yesterday, a “town hall” with NJ Gov. Chris Christie was another object lesson in crisis management. A cautionary tale and how to take apart your brand.

Christie’s brand was formidable: A non-nonsense, Jersey-talkin’, tough guy walkin’, GET-‘ER-DONE Governor. After Super Storm Sandy, Christie appeared on TV to defend his willingness to work with the President of the United States, despite his political affiliation with his opponent Mitt Romney. “I don’t care about that,” Christie forcefully insisted, pointing to the conspicuous need of his constituents for all available help. Our hero. Didn’t even have time to change his clothes, wearing his “I’m-working-on-my-day-off” emergency situation fleece.

Christie’s brand was also false.

Actually, he probably did care if this hurt Romney. He was probably just fine with that. Romney passed over him for VP and his loss would clear the way or Christie to seek the big job in 2016.

Yesterday, Christie said some interesting things in his “town hall” meeting with NJ residents with questions about Sandy funding distribution. He blamed FEMA and the federal government for any/all things that were delayed or denied. Okay, that’s typical political excuse-making.

That kills his brand by a thousand paper cuts, but then he said the thing that tells the real story. The great hands-on manager who can get it DONE said that if anyone had told him a year ago that he’d still be spending so much time and effort on Sandy recovery, he just wouldn’t have believed it.

Really? A storm much more vast than Katrina that chose the Garden State as it point of entry … damage more massive and widespread than anything the U.S. has seen in Christie’s lifetime, but you thought the cleanup would be wrapped up with a bow on it in just a year?

To quote the governor when speaking to a constituent on television … What? Are you stupid?

Actually, it’s simpler than that – he’s just a phony. His brand was a perception … an image that he cultivated, but wasn’t really that guy. 

What has become very clear is that Christie’s brand and his actual delivery of “the goods” is a house of cards now facing high winds and rain – a storm of scrutiny, if you will. Christie talks about how he doesn’t have enough cash to pay all claims, but managed to carve our either $6 or $10 million (disclosure of spending is NOT transparent) of Sandy money for a senior housing project in unaffected Belleville New Jersey.

New Jersey law requires disclosure and public transparency of how this money is spent. Christie’s administration is simply not delivering and in the wake of the ever-expanding George Washington bridge scandal, Christie’s defense is that every person who worked in his office engaged in a vast criminal conspiracy engaging in hundreds of messages, meetings and agreements for how to do this, then how to cover it up, and that Christie himself was utterly unaware of this happening.

The most important development in all of this is the change in perception. Christie is the same guy who has delivered squat to his state in jobs. He’s the same guy who put the kibosh on a much-needed new tunnel between New Jersey and New York citing (falsely) that New Jersey would be required to pay for more than 70% of the projected. There were big fat federal grant dollars for that project. Christie spiked the project and kept the money in the Port Authority’s budget, then raided that to balance his state’s budget while cutting taxes, This, he attributed to his gift for “working across the aisle” to solve problems.

He’s the same guy who has done a lot of punching on and off stage to get what he wants. The difference now is the willingness of the injured to cry foul and the sniff of the next big corruption story that is bringing down an apparently unbeatable Republican. It has the next wave of journalism students signing up for classes.

The risk in this … all of this … from a Crisis Communications and PR standpoint is very, very simple. It is the risk of lying. If you are building your “empire” based on something false about you or how you do business, it is obviously vulnerable to a strong wind and the bright sunshine of public scrutiny. Don’t do it!!!

If something bad happens, tell the truth, tell it all and tell it QUICKLY. Yes, you need to take some time to gather facts, but that’s another post altogether. Remember, Christie wanted to appear decisive, so he fired his Deputy Chief of Staff (in January). Asked if he questioned her about the emails that got her fired, he said sternly that she had lied to him so he didn’t care what she had to say. New Jersey voters will likely provide him the same response.


Crisis Management – Learn from a high profile trainwreck

Although for the last month it cannot have been easy being NJ Governor Chris Christie, it sure looks like for the last dozen years or so, it’s been entirely too easy. He gets his way, he doesn’t hear “No, sir” very much and when he says “Jump!”, those around him ask only “How high?”.

It might be good to be King (or just to be treated like one), but the fact is, Christie is not a king. He’s a servant –a public servant – a fact that has been brought front and center in a scandal whose dimensions are not yet fully identified. The chances that we know now the full list of accusations to come before a federal grand jury are slim and none. This story doesn’t merely have legs. It’s a centipede.

However the facts of the scandal shake out and whatever the dimension of damage to Christie’s political career, one thing is clear — he is panicked and isolated when it comes to his public management of how he’s handling the crisis. Crippled by an ego that matches his physique, there is obviously no one in Trenton with the juice to tell the governor to sit down and shut up – for his own sake.

Lesson #1: Need frank advise? GO FIND IT. No one’s going to bring it to you. Empower people to stop you from acting on your emotions.

On Saturday afternoon (2/1/14) Christie sent out a campaign “on background” style “info sheet” on an accuser (former Port Authority Officer and GW Bridge lane-closer David Wildstein) that signaled one thing and one thing only – the Governor is freaking out. The “background” on David Wildstein is a bunch of nonsense that sounds like character attack, but doesn’t have a single, specific accusation in it. Worse, it lists bullet points that a middle school bully would dismiss, like “He was publicly accused by his high school social studies teacher of deceptive behavior.”


The Governor loves to talk about politics’ rough and tumble nature, citing the Finley Peter Dunne quote “politics ain’t bean bag.” (Often ignored is Dunne’s rather non-PC reference to women, children and the disabled staying out of it) Fact is, Christie is among the most thin-skinned politicians around. Dozens of stories have emerged about payback, small, medium and large, that have occurred because of a perceived slight to Christie.  Not limited to those who might attack him, but instead rendered on those who fail to adequately support him.

Match up that level of demand for loyalty with a breathtaking ego that was on display in any number of press conferences and you have a formula for the one thing most deadly for a chief executive in a PR crisis — isolation.  To be surrounded by sycophants when you’re under siege is to be surrounded by vultures while you’re down and bleeding. They’re going to wait till you you’re dead to start feeding, but they have no interest in helping you stop the bleeding and escape alive.  A bird’s gotta eat.

Lesson #2: Get the focus off of yourself and onto the job you’re supposed to be doing. In short, get back to WORK.

The primary problem for the Garden State Governor is that he wants to solve this problem  by pushing and shoving – the way he’s solved problems before (an understandable tendency). He put on the mask of humility for nearly two hours in a press conference (1/9/14) that stopped providing new information after about 15 minutes. He repeatedly insisted that the story was about his hurt and upset. He kept talking and talking — about himself.

When Bill Clinton was engulfed in the Lewinsky scandal, he was a guy caught in a lie – one of a more personal nature, to be sure. One of the things that helped him emerge from that dark corner of his public life is that he continued to talk — about the American people and his determination to keep working for them, fulfilling his oath and protecting their interests. He would let history judge whether or not he was a good president, he said. George W. Bush wisely said much the same thing while taking on water in 2006 over the Iraq war.  As reporters continued peppering him with questions about his legacy and reputation as president, he refused to answer, saying it wasn’t his call. The American people and presidential historians will figure that out, he said, and he did so repeatedly in the heat of one controversy after another.

If Christie were asked that question today (“What’s your legacy, Governor?”) there is no chance that he wouldn’t answer it … in a lengthy and self-serving fashion. In October 2011, Christie made a much-anticipated announcement that he would NOT run for president in 2012. He took an HOUR to do this. Repeating himself. Admiring himself.  Talking about what time his wife woke him up to tell him to run for president.  Ten minutes would have been a little long. An hour was pity-inducing.

Lesson #3 – Know when to bow and exit gracefully

After an election that produced a potential constitutional crisis, Al Gore took about five minutes to concede the 2000 election and exit stage left. While Christie’s resignation is not imminent and the press is breathlessly awaiting documents subpoenaed by legislators and a grand jury, the governor is left to keep his own counsel about what to say and how to say it.

That’s a bad position to be in for someone addicted to the sound of his own voice and even worse for those trying their best to advise him to let others speak for him.