Governor Chris Christie’s Very VERY Bad Day – And A Few Lessons On Crisis Management

Here’s the thing about politics folks: It is virtually 100% impossible to reach the upper levels of the political media circus and not be: (a) accused of involvement in a scandal; (b) actually be involved in a scandal; or (c) both. If you’re lucky, it only happens once and can be successfully evaded. If not, the possible outcomes include everything from a usually short-lived stint as a cable TV pundit to some serious time in federal prison. And remember: the variety and spectrum of possible scandals from which to “choose” is stunningly large, covering virtually every sin in the book (even some difficult to invent):

  • Ronald Reagan: Iran/Contra
  • George H.W. Bush: The “Keating Five” Savings and Loan Crisis
  • Bill Clinton: I’m pretty sure this one doesn’t require  actual words . . . But like most Americans, I love the guy (more on this later…)
  • George W. Bush: Depending on your political perspective everything from Abu Ghraib prison abuses; Scooter Libby’s criminal conviction; the horrendous mismanagement of Hurricane Katrina; perhaps the entire Iraq War; failing to implement almost ANY of the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations; almost allowing the economy to enter a second Great Depression . . . Take your pick.
  • Barack Obama: Again your political persuasion will clearly inform your views, but . . . IRS targeting, NSA abuses, the Associated Press scandal, various alleged constitutional violations, “If you like your health insurance plan you can keep it . . .” — Again, feel free to choose. There are plenty of websites offering helpful suggestions if you’re having a hard time.
  • Hillary Clinton: Everything from the truly absurd (She murdered one of Bill’s best friends) to the quasi-true (Benghazi)
  • Mitt Romney: Strapped the family dog to the roof of his car (extra points for creativity at least)
  • Eliot Spitzer: So the guy likes hookers — What’s the big deal? (Well, for one thing, maybe don’t make cracking down on prostitution a priority of your administration . . .)
  • John McCain: Almost went down for the Keating Five
  • Anthony Weiner: The name really does say it all. (Also EXTRA SUPER BONUS POINTS for having a sex scandal while somehow managing never to have sex!)
  • The State of Illinois: Which of their former governors AREN’T currently in prison??? Oh – the dead ones.
  • And lest we forget, the most awesome Mayor of Toronto ever, Rob Ford: “Yeah sure I smoked crack, but only because I was wasted out of my mind . . .” (you can read for yourself what he later said about his wife – As I often have to remind folks, this just isn’t that kind of website)

And obviously, the list goes on and on and on – now joined by the Governor of the great state of New Jersey with today’s revelation that (at the very least) some of his most important aides did in fact willfully obstruct traffic headed onto the George Washington Bridge (including school buses and emergency responders) in an apparent effort to take revenge on a random small town mayor who’d had the audacity to support Christie’s opponent during the last election. [CNN now has a handy “primer” (including video) with all the sordid details and allegations]

Although, so far, only staff have been implicated directly, the facts are looking worse for “The Guv” on an almost minute-by-minute basis – especially since he’s so directly in the national spotlight as the only truly moderate (and likely) GOP presidential candidate — Not to mention that his administration is now not merely the subject of a seemingly endless negative press barrage but an actual investigation by the Justice Department (Generally speaking, never a good thing . . . Again just trust me here – Don’t let it happen to you – Really – Just don’t, OK?)

Moreover, according to “The Bergen County Record” and numerous other sources, the consequences of “traffic-gate” were anything but trivial:

“An unconscious 91-year-old woman who later died of cardiac arrest. A car accident with multiple injuries. A missing 4-year-old. With local streets at a standstill after access lanes to the George Washington Bridge were abruptly closed, emergency responders struggled to answer calls for help — including these and other potentially life-or-death situations. It took an hour for help to arrive at a building where a person was experiencing chest pains. Paramedics couldn’t even get to an elderly woman in cardiac arrest — they had to meet the ambulance en route.”

So here’s the deal — What can Christie learn from his countless scandal-monger predecessors – some of whom survived brilliantly (Bill Clinton) and others, not so much (Remember that Congressman who had just a few two many hundred dollar bills in his freezer? What could possibly go wrong?)  Four quick pointers from the world of crisis management:

(1) Bad narratives never die. They have to be replaced. When Clinton left office, nobody cared about Monica anymore – they loved the “Man From Hope” who “felt their pain,” who had delivered multiple budget surpluses and had helped create vast economic growth. Ditto for Reagan — Iran/Contra hurt for a while but once you WIN THE COLD WAR suddenly that’s not your legacy.

(2) Get out in front – Cover-ups ALWAYS do more damage than the underlying event. Imagine if Nixon had simply come out after Watergate, held a press conference, expressed disgust and outrage that people on his campaign randomly happened to be burglars and then profoundly apologized. Other revelations might still have crippled his presidency but Woodward and Bernstein, at least, might also have been given a different assignment.

(3) Never need to change your story. Bill Clinton gave himself years of needless hell the minute he declared: “I never had sexual relations with that woman – Miss Lewinsky.” President Obama could have informed the public months in advance that ObamaCare’s software platform was going to require additional time to develop AND that - NO – some (quasi-fraudulent plans with ludicrous deductibles) would not actually remain available. Had he done so – had he been just that much more of a real straight-talker, Republicans would certainly still have kept up the attacks but the public would probably have been infinitely more forgiving AND the President would already have gotten it “out there” before the highly unpopular GOP-led government shutdown. Literally, a dash or two of proactivity could have changed the whole media landscape.

(4) Develop a thorough crisis management plan far in advance of an actual crisis. Seeing the incredible frequency with which political scandals occur, it has always amazed me that so many politicians fail to plan ahead. Then again, it also amazes me that even some of our wealthiest corporations, executives and celebrities don’t either . . . That said, at a minimum, any quality crisis management plan should do the following: Clearly set out who your new independent spokesperson will be; Designate a “ready-to-go” internal investigation team; Assign your “lawyers of last resort;” Create rapid response talking points for virtually every contingency (you just never know when you’re going to start tweeting those pictures…); And continuously ALWAYS monitor the press for any hints of smoke that could turn out to be fires. Obviously, this is only a portion of what effective preparation looks like, but even taking these basic steps can go a very long way when it comes to effective damage control. If you take nothing else away from this it should be that reputational damage can NEVER be dealt with other than in the minutes after it is inflicted. Since nobody can plan that fast, planning in advance isn’t just smart – it’s the ONLY WAY NOT TO BE STUPID.

So how’s Christie doing? So far I give him a B-. His apology speech today wasn’t terrible (at times, it was actually quite eloquent), but he violated Rule 3 entirely since he had initially stated that his staff had nothing to do with the incident. Whether he was lied to or was himself lying isn’t really the issue – the point is that he’ll have a lot of reputation rebuilding to do which means time not spent on reputation improvement. Hillary and the various stories about Benghazi may be a similar example although she’s had enough experience with scandal that I’m doubting the issue will be especially harmful by 2016. Also, unlike Hillary who went straight to Congress to tell it “her way” — and invited every news camera she could, Christie appeared as if he’d been clinging to some forlorn hope that the story would just magically go away by itself. And quite obviously, neither he nor his staff had a plan. If they did, time to hire a new PR guy, folks . . .

Personally, I think there’s still plenty of time for Christie to recover here as long as he can suppress his tendency to get angry at critics or the media (there was a bit of that today but nothing disastrous). Also, how the US Attorney investigation plays out may be the ultimate determining factor. If the Governor is found to have been personally involved, he’ll be moving from front-runner to national joke in under a second. Nevertheless, I for one hope he does get through this. The Republican Party could benefit substantially from his intelligent and non-Tea-Party voice. And he also doesn’t strike me as someone who would ever prioritize a petty grudge over the safety of a state he seems very genuinely to love.

Perhaps a good note on which to end along with just one final lesson: Even the best crisis management plan ever written ceases to function if you’re headed to The Big House. So don’t let that happen either . . .

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