Got Mockery? The Marathon Press Conference That Made Things Worse

Have you been keeping tabs on the drama that is unfolding in New Jersey?  As someone who coaches executive leaders in designing and delivering high-level public presentations, I found the two-hour press conference given by Governor Chris Christie addictive.

chris-christy-mockery
AP Photo / Mel Evans

“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee, New Jersey” [1] To summarize, private messages sent via email between Governor’s Christie’s deputy chief of staff and two of his top executives at the Port Authority revealed 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 story continues to unfold but there are lessons to be learned about public speaking and crisis communication that we – both men and women – can all take to heart.

The Email messages are replete with references and insults to Fort Lee’s Democratic mayor, who had failed to endorse Christie for re-election, and they chronicle how local officials tried to reach the Port Authority 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.”  [2]

A New York Times story summarized the tone of emails well:

Later text messages mocked concerns that school buses filled with students were stuck in gridlock: “They are the children of Buono voters,” Mr. Wildstein wrote, referring to Mr. Christie’s opponent Barbara Buono.

The emails are striking in their political maneuvering, showing Christie aides gleeful about some of the chaos that resulted. Emergency vehicles were delayed in responding to three people with heart problems and a missing toddler, and commuters were left fuming. One of the governor’s associates refers to the mayor of Fort Lee as “this little Serbian,” and Ms. Kelly exchanges messages about the plan while she is in line to pay her respects at a wake.

This is serious stuff, particularly for a man considered as a Republican Presidential nominee. Christie had become a rock star in national politics. In January 2013, Time magazine even called Christie “The Boss” in its cover story.

A big man suffering from a big temperament. Governor Christie’s aggressive verbal style is to do what needs to be done to make himself look good. For instance, in his speech nominating Mitt Romney for President at the Republican convention, Christie almost forgot to mention Romney’s name. Christie’s speech was all about him. And even in televised town meetings, Christie’s aggressive communication style consistently demonstrated a penchant for mockery, sarcasm, derision and disdain for those who disagreed.

Pass the buck. Governor Christie set out to explain how he handled “Bridge-gate” by portraying himself as a victim of two staff members’ bad behavior.  He told the press (and those watching the conference) that he was sad, humiliated, embarrassed, and heartbroken to have his trust betrayed by those who worked on his executive team. The tragedy was explained to have been created by his deputy Chief of Staff, a woman named “Bridget” of all things, who was known to be a loyal team player not known to be impulsive. Still, he fired her and his campaign manager the next day.

The Blame Game. Perhaps the most fascinating part of the governor’s talkathon was his explanation for what he did after his workout and towel-down: he fired his deputy chief of staff “quickly” throwing her under the bus (or the GW Bridge, in this case). Actually, it took 24 hours to meet with his staff. Christie never mentioned asking Bridget Kelly for an explanation, thus never delving into why this happened so that perhaps he might learn the Why, How, and Who Else of the matter.

Memorable quotes: Certain sentences linger on through history: “I’m not a crook” (Richard Nixon) and “I did not have sex with that woman” (Bill Clinton).  Now we have Governor Chris Christie saying that “I am NOT a bully.” Does he expect us to feel his pain? For speakers looking for executive role models, Christie’s way of handling the “Bridge-gate” press conference provides examples of what not to do if you should ever find yourself in a crisis situation so serious that it could destroy your career. Turning it around, we can learn valuable lessons from how to explain a crisis in a way that puts it behind you and allows you move forward:

1. Practice getting undefended. Ask yourself if you believe in the stories that you are making up just to get through this crisis. It takes courage to “get real,” and to feel the pain of the people who have been hurt by a blunder. People aren’t stupid. What they don’t need to hear from someone on the hot seat is the phrase “what you need to know.” Even the most charismatic “big personality” can’t sail through a crisis with rhetoric alone.

2. Be humble. When a situation becomes a crisis and your credibility is threatened, be humble, acknowledge the seriousness of the problem, and take responsibility. You can’t fake sincerity. In this case, the emails provide the back-story. The public and the press begin your press conference knowing the unarguable basic facts. People on your team loyal to you will have thought they had your endorsement for a course of action that backfired, whether expressed or not. And at the press conference, Christie never apologized for the impact of the bridge closure to New Jersey residents, particularly those most vulnerable, like an elderly woman waiting for an ambulance.

3. Don’t have a pity party. Are you sad and humiliated because it happened to you or because it happened to your constituents because of bad behavior by you or your top aides?  Perhaps you’re most upset because your staff was caught. Would you have done something if your staff hadn’t been exposed? As an observer, I felt that Christie was speaking as a child would talk to his mother, rationalizing a bad day. Because you’re caught in a bad situation and feel badly about it isn’t enough. If I were that elderly woman waiting for an ambulance to get over the bridge, I’d likely say: “Frankly, I don’t give a damn.”

4. Apologize, period. Whether constituents, customers , clients, students, or JQ Public,  a sincere apology is needed to be able to move people forward. Keep the apology simple so that everyone believes you. You can’t fake sincerity, even with a hangdog look. While Christie started to say that “The buck stops here, and I’m responsible,”  sort of thing, he then qualified himself by adding “except I’m not because I wasn’t informed about the decisions that were made.” What gobbledegook. Saying “Mistakes were made” is more than an understatement when in fact, your top aides broke the law.

5. Make it a turning point. We want to know, “What did you learn from this? What will you do differently from now on?” Express to the public, your constituents, customers, or stakeholders that, on your watch, this situation won’t happen again. Then tell us the specific measures you’ll take to protect us. Ask us to wait and see what happens next. Tell us you want to earn back our trust.  Ask for forgiveness. Consider this: What can you do to change the public’s opinion of you and regain their trust?

6. Pay a price. Give up something personally valuable to get something better in order to make amends. Bite the bullet. Do the unthinkable. But certainly don’t advance the very person most obviously responsible for overseeing those you’ve blamed and shamed.  Christie did just the opposite by expressing confidence in and support for his Chief of Staff, Kevin O’Dowd, advancing him as candidate for the Attorney General of New Jersey. O’Dowd would then be asked to prosecute the very people he had been supervising, as if putting the fox in charge of the hen house. Christie could have put the people of New Jersey above political loyalty but in this case, loyalty wins out.

The glee and disrespect by top aides for New Jersey residents was the sickening part  of the GW Bridge closure that will make this a story one that won’t go away, particularly with a self-pitying explanation that disrespects the press and the public’s intelligence.  It’s likely that Christie’s performance at his press conference will likely escalate further investigations and lessen the public’s sympathy for his predicament.

At the microphone, there are huge repercussions for those in power who deny the truth versus those who face the truth and are able to rebound. How you are known before you take that first step towards the microphone will affect whether people see you as trustworthy and believe you’re capable of redemption. We’ll soon see how the Governor of New Jersey fares as he struggles to stay afloat.


[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/13/nyregion/a-bridge-to-scandal-behind-the-fort-lee-ruse.html?hpw&rref=nyregion&_r=0

[2] I liked this brief summary of events found here: http://aksarbent.blogspot.com/2014/01/emails-bust-gop-nj-gov-christies-lies.html#sthash.7K88a5PN.dpuf

5 Responses

  • Yes – CC likes to turn the conversation back to himself (…”oh, but enough about me. What do YOU think of me?”) and in the same way he made the Romney speech more about himself, he definitely played the victim in his press conference rather than being a big man and taking responsibility.

  • I heard mighty little in the way of an apology or any respect shown for those whom he inconvenienced and those he endangered.
    I don’t buy for a minute that he had no idea this was going on.
    I really enjoyed your suggestions for how to handle an embarrassing and politically dangerous situation. Nicely done on your the six steps for handling an unfolding crisis Dr. Phillips.

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