“Who’s got change for the bridge?”
Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey is providing a lesson—probably unintended—in crisis communications. You can read the details here, but the short version is—alleged, of course—that persons in the governor’s office ordered the closing of lanes to the George Washington Bridge in Ft. Lee, New Jersey, as retribution on the town’s Democratic mayor who declined to endorse Christie’s re-election last fall. The resulting four days of gridlock in Ft. Lee caused massive commuter headaches, prevented kids from getting to school on time, and (again, allegedly) delayed at least a few ambulances from getting patients to the hospital.
Assuming the allegations are true, they are bad enough for Christie. But the events in question happened back in September of 2013, and rumors of the governor’s involvement began to arise in October. Here we are almost three months later and the story has erupted into a full-blown scandal that is still unfolding. You know you’re in trouble when people start asking: “What did Gov. Christie know and when did he know it?”
So how might have Christie responded differently? There are three tenets of crisis communications that—had the Governor followed them—might have averted or at least ameliorated this scandal:
- Tell the truth—always;
- Get out as much information as you can as fast as you can—including information that might be negative for you; and
- Take responsibility—which is different from taking the blame or admitting fault.
As for #1, emails and texts now being released suggest that Christie and his staff simply were not being truthful. Worse, Christie’s office damaged its credibility with some cockamamie story about a traffic study. (Helpful hint: if you’re going to lie, don’t make up a lie that could be picked apart by a college journalism student.) As for #2, the Governor’s office had to be subpoenaed to release those staff emails and texts. The slow drip of revelations also lengthens the story. As for #3, Christie is claiming he only learned of these issues yesterday (see #1) and that it was his underlings who did it.
How different the narrative today would be if Christie, back in November, had announced: “In investigating rumors about the GWB lane closings, it came to my attention that several of my key staff behaved inappropriately and without my authority. I am sorry for the inconvenience caused to the people of Ft. Lee. It’s my job to make sure my staff work for the best interests of the people of the State of New Jersey. I have asked the staff involved to tender their resignations.”
That would have been a tough press conference, to be sure, but the story would have been about Christie rooting out rogue staff and putting the public’s interest ahead of his own political goals. Instead, the media is feasting on a narrative about a political bully trying to punish any opposition, now matter how insignificant.
Just like it does for daily commuters, the George Washington Bridge is taking a toll on Gov. Christie.