Disclaimer #1: Politics and religion are said to be the two topics off limits for discussion. This blog is about neither, but happens to center on a politician. That said, this entry isn’t about politics, it’s about communication.
Disclaimer #2: No matter how you feel about Chris Christie’s current calamity, this is about a specific event in said scandal and should not be taken as an endorsement of Christie.
Unless you’ve been hiding under a political rock, it’s been impossible to avoid the recent scandal involving New Jersey Governor (and possible 2016 presidential candidate) Chris Christie. The (apparent) political decision to close a key bridge in the state to (allegedly) get back at a mayor was at best, an inconvenience and, at worst, life threatening.
After members of his inner circle were conclusively shown to be involved in the George Washington bridge closure, Christie went on the defensive** with a marathon press conference to clear the air. The two hour affair would likely bury any other minor scandal or faux paux. And luckily, most of us will never be the governor of New Jersey (or any other state). From a communications and public relations standpoint, here are three things Chris Christie did right. And three things public figures should do when caught in a compromising position.
“I’ve come out here today to apologize to the people of New Jersey. I apologize to the people of Fort Lee and I apologize to the members of the state legislature.
“I am embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct of some of the people on my team.”
In the age of the 24-hour news cycle, most stories don’t have legs beyond a day or two. The original indiscretion can – and often will – be immediately compounded when the figure at the center fails to own up to what happened. As a communications professional, I’d advise my client to apologize sincerely and quickly, which leads me to…
“I also need to apologize to them for my failure as the governor of this state to understand the true nature of this problem sooner than I did.”
Excuses abound at some of the highest levels of public and private life when mistakes happen. No matter how many people take the fall, the buck ultimately stops at the top and the boss is left holding the bag. As a leader, you simply do not have the option to say “I don’t know,” run from a problem or blame the subordinates who report to you. Shirking responsibility is a quick way to undermine leadership. Even if you are not at fault, you own your team’s failures. As leaders (rightfully) take victory laps for the successes, they must also take the hit when disaster strikes.
Talk about what you’ve done to correct the problem
“I believe I have an understanding now of the true nature of the problem and I’ve taken the following action as a result.
“This morning I’ve terminated the employment of Bridget Kelly, effective immediately. I’ve terminated her employment because she lied to me.”
People like action. While certain government agencies may prohibit leaders from speaking on personnel issues, taking immediate action – and announcing that you’ve taken it – will go a long way to reassure the public that you take the issues seriously and are committed to regaining their trust.
Light the way forward
“I have and will continue to, started yesterday, to once again now have personal one-on-one discussions myself with the remaining members of my senior staff to determine if there’s any other information that I do not know and need to know in order to take appropriate action.
“I’m not completed with those interviews yet, but when I am, if there is additional information that needs to be disclosed, I will do so. If there’s additional actions that need to be taken with my senior staff, I will do so.”
Many issues will blow over quickly if steps 1-3 are taken. Still, people need to know what you’re going to do to ensure the current issue is sufficiently taken care of and that issues of that type will never happen again.
In today’s news cycle, there is no quicker story killer than the truth. Oftentimes a public figure cannot be bludgeoned with honesty; a lie is like handing a club to your opponents to beat you with.
**Denial will almost always have disastrous consequences unless you or your team is completely without guilt or blame. Tell the truth, tell it often and tell it first.