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.”

Pathetic.

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.

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