Tag Archives: Fort Lee

How Christie may survive ‘bridgegate’

Chris Christie may have lost the first few rounds of “bridgegate,” but there’s still plenty of rounds to go, and don’t be surprised if he’s still standing when the final bell sounds.

Sure, the New Jersey governor suffered some serious blows last week when emails and texts surfaced showing that high level staffers in his office played a role in orchestrating traffic tie-ups on the George Washington Bridge and in Fort Lee, apparently as political retribution against the city’s mayor. But by the time the week came to a close, Christie had safely navigated his way through a minefield that threatened his political future. More minefields may lie ahead, but for now, the governor is well positioned. Here’s why:

First, he did everything right when it comes to crisis communication. He fired the people he said were responsible. He made himself accessible to the press — and answered reporters’ questions for nearly two hours at a news conference. He was apologetic and repeatedly said he was misled and felt humiliated. And he traveled to Fort Lee to personally apologize to the mayor.

As I wrote on Friday, none of what Christie did will work if it turns out he’s not being honest about how much he knew and the extent of his role in the affair. Since then, however, another 2,000 pages of documents have been made public, and although those documents revealed a series of disturbing actions on the part of Christie’s staff, nothing yet has shown the governor was directly involved in the decision to close traffic lanes and tie up traffic.

With some of the state and nation’s best reporters — and large news organizations with extensive personnel and resources — aggressively pursuing the story, I have to believe that, if there is information implicating the governor in those documents, we would have seen it be now.

Meanwhile, the Assembly Transportation, Public Works and Independent Authorities Committee is subpoenaing more documents, the U.S. Attorney’s Office is launching an investigation and the media is not going to give up on this story for a long time, so there still are more potential minefields ahead for the governor.

But let’s look how this turns out if nothing changes: More documents are made public, but still there is nothing that directly links Christie to the decision to tie up traffic. Likewise, the U.S. Attorney’s Office also fails to find anything that would implicate the governor.

In this scenario, Christie emerges with the perfect talking point to use whenever he’s asked a bridgegate question:

“That issue has been dealt with. When I found out about it, I fired the people who were responsible, I apologized to the mayor of Fort Lee and I answered questions from the press for almost two hours. The U.S. Attorney’s Office conducted an extensive investigation and found I had no involvement. Next question.”

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A Simple Lesson Missed

When I teach public relations, I tell my students: Before you send an email or text, or post something on Twitter, Facebook or any other social network, stop and think of what the repercussions will be if what you write ends up on the front or home page of a newspaper.

It’s a very real concern. Because of freedom of information laws and increased calls for government transparency, more material than ever is legally accessible to reporters and the general public. And the reality in 2014 is that it is unrealistic to expect that anything one writes in electronic form will remain private, regardless of whether the communication is subject to government transparency requirements. Such items often are leaked by individuals or organizations with a vested interest in making them public. And computer hackers have demonstrated increasing abilities to tap into private files.

Apparently, my lesson on using discretion when communicating electronically is not one that the Christie Administration has learned. As The Record reported this morning:

Private messages between Governor’s Christie’s deputy chief of staff and two of his top executives at the Port Authority reveal a vindictive effort to create “traffic problems in Fort Lee” by shutting lanes to the George Washington Bridge and apparent pleasure at the resulting gridlock.

The messages are replete with references and insults to Fort Lee’s mayor, who had failed to endorse Christie for re-election and they chronicle how they tried to reach Port Authority officials in a vain effort to eliminate the paralyzing gridlock that overwhelmed his town of 35,000 which sits in the shadow of the bridge, the world’s busiest.

Tomorrow, former Port Authority official David Wildstein is scheduled to appear before the Assembly Transportation, Public Works and Independent Authorities Committee to answer questions about the lane closings. The session will provide an opportunity to see how well the Christie Administration has learned a different public relations lesson – the one on crisis communication.

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