Christie's Lessons In Bridging A Credibility Gap

by , Jan 10, 2014, 7:57 AM
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Brand Chris Christie’s routine commute to a presidential ticket has become ensnarled in a massive traffic jam that certainly contains lessons for crises management practitioners. Whether they are lessons to be taken or ignored will be determined by how he fares on the trail up to ’16, of course.

Expediency seems to be one lesson, if you ignore the fact that a guy who runs a notoriously “tight ship” took weeks to perceive the scandal that was right under his nose, as the National Review’s Andrew J. McCarthy suggested in a piece posted before yesterday’s press conference. 

“I found this out at 8:50 yesterday morning. By 9 o'clock this morning, Bridget Kelly was fired. By 7 o'clock yesterday evening, Bill Stepien was asked to leave my organization,” he said. “That's pretty swift action for a day's work, and that's exactly the way I'll continue to conduct myself if there's any other information surrounding this that comes up, or anything different that comes up over the course of the next four years.”

Lay it all out there bluntly and forcefully is another precept to consider. USA Today collected seven other “memorable” quotes besides the one above from the nearly two-hour press conference that played out on live TV. They are all dripping with conviction and passion.

One, in particular was a clunker, though, Matt Townsend suggests in Bloomberg Businessweek. Christie apparently was cruising along just fine “until he channeled Richard Nixon” when he was asked “whether the bridge maneuver backed up critics’ contention that he’s a bully by saying, ‘I am not a bully.’”

He “broke a basic tenet of damage control by echoing one of his foes’ favorite attack lines,” Townsend writes, citing Davia Temin of the Temin & Co. crisis management firm. “The No. 1 rule is don’t repeat the allegations,” Temin tells him. “I am not a bully or I am not a crook — it’s the wrong thing to do.”

The Wire’s Alexander Abad-Santos has put together an entertaining collection of how front pages have handled the “Bridgeghazi” scandal, from the New York Post to The Trentonian (which ran a Photoshopped picture of Christie with a traffic cone on his head).

It will be instructive to see how both foes — GOP rivals and Democrats who didn’t endorse him — and opinionators spin the crisis going forward. In an editorial this morning, the Wall Street Journal contrasts Christie’s “contrition with Obama’s lack thereof” over the IRS’ “abuse of political opponents and his reluctance to fire anyone other than a military general for anything.”

Meanwhile, the Journal’s news and opinion pages carry at least eight other stories about the scandal, going by the headlines in its “In Today’s Paper” email. They include a complete transcript of Christies apologia and news conference, as well as analyses of everything from his management style to the reactions of Fort Lee’s citizens. 

Then there’s sports columnist Jason Gay’s “free billion-dollar idea: The Apology Channel on TV” that would feature 24/7 apologies from politicians, business leaders, celebrities and sports heroes and would carry the tagline “Because you're nobody unless you're saying sorry.”

Gay goes on to contrast Christie’s apology with those of high-profile athletes over the years, beginning with Dennis Rodman’s excuse for his unruly interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo Wednesday. (Time.com had an unfortunate ad/edit juxtaposition for a while yesterday: A huge banner for a Chivas Regal 25 “A Legend Reborn” branded content splash sat directly over the headline “I Had Been Drinking: Rodman Apologizes for North Korea Rant.”)

One suspects that the IRS tax scandal was not covered with such fervor by the Journal’s reporters. That’s because Christie is a bold, brass, in-your-face brand, akin more to Axe than your grandfather’s Old Spice (well, until recently).

As you might imagine, the New York Times editorial pages saw things a bit differently than the Journal’s. “At this point, the governor has zero credibility. His office has abused its power, and only a full and conclusive investigation can restore public trust in his administration,” it says.

But “Christie transformed the worst day in his political career to the finest yesterday,” according to The Polling Company CEO Kellyanne Conway. “Governor Chris Christie has always been the honest, ethical guy you saw today apologizing to the people of New Jersey,” she said on CNBC’s “The Kudlow Report.” 

Is a comeback possible? Hey, if Barbie can do it, why couldn’t Chris?

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