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.