I tend to agree with most of the crisis communication “experts” who feel N.J. Gov. Chris Christie handled things well yesterday in his press conference about the controversial lane closures on the George Washington Bridge.
The governor fired the people he said were responsible. He was apologetic and repeatedly said he was misled and felt humiliated — and he kept the press conference going until he answered every reporter’s question (almost two hours).
That said, 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. Having worked in a governor’s office, I believe it is highly unlikely, but not impossible, that Christie didn’t know about the lane closures, especially since he is a notorious micro-manager.
On the other hand, it’s hard for me to imagine that Christie would have stated so emphatically and so publicly that he didn’t know about the plans to close the lanes and intentionally snarl traffic. He’s smart enough to realize the consequences if he is caught lying about his knowledge of the incident, and he must know that the press and various government agencies are going to be looking into the affair aggressively for a long time.
One other note on a related development that took place yesterday: The fact that former Port Authority official David Wildstein invoked the Fifth Amendment and refused to answer questions before the Assembly Transportation, Public Works and Independent Authorities Committee could ultimately prove to be very damaging in the long run.
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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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