Chris Christie – a brand reputation case study of transparency in government

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie this morning called a live press conference to address allegations, apparently true, that his staff repeatedly closed lanes on the George Washington Bridge as “part of a politically motivated vendetta” against the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, N.J.

The Governor’s words and actions during this crisis either strengthen his brand as a straight talking, trustworthy leader, or weaken his brand if he dodges responsibility or tries to cover up what happened to make himself look better.

What happened?

In his statement, Governor Christie used phrases like:

  • “I was blindsided (by the revelations)”
  • “I’m sorry.”
  • “I’m embarrassed.”
  • “You deserve better.”
  • “…(in regard to previous statements from his office)…that was a lie.”
  • “I am heartbroken.”
  • “…anyone on my staff…so stupid…so deceitful…”
  • “I am responsible…we fell short of…excellence in government.”
  • “Actions have consequences.”

Gov. Christie described consequences to a variety of advisers and staff members, then said don’t be confused about where responsibility really lies: “Ultimately, I am responsible for what happens under my watch.”

Leaders, both private sector and public sector, often are accused of hiding and covering up, rather than speaking clearly and honestly about actions. Gov. Christie’s “brand reputation” is a forthright leader who shoots from the hip and works across the political aisles. In today’s compelling news conference, Christie lived up to his brand reputation by talking clearly and plainly about truth, loyalty, lying, the public’s expectations, and consequences.

While none of us on the outside can attest to who knew what when, Chris Christie looked and sounded like a leader who was addressing a crisis with the truth he knows, explaining what happened, how it fell short of public expectations, and what was going to happen next to address what was wrong.

Gov. Christie said the Mayor and people of Fort Lee deserve an apology, and that he is going to go to them and apologize personally. When Christie does that, he will strengthen his personal brand and model the kind of behavior we should expect in our leaders.

In response to a reporter’s follow-up question, Christie said, “I am not a focus-group driven, blow-dried politician.” He isn’t, and that is a good thing for his potential as a leader.

Note: The author does not live in New Jersey nor has any relationship with Gov Christie. This is an outside commentary from a public affairs expert on how leaders lead, if in fact they do lead.

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Erik G Eitel

Nice post, Robin. I do agree, regardless of how the situation turns out, he does say it how it is and has taken responsibility for the actions of the people working under him.

Robin Paoli

Thanks, Erik – yes, I can’t begin to address the validity of the traffic study, et al, and have no insight into how the situation does turn out, but he handled the presser with plain spoken candor. While he has received snark/flack for letting the Q&A last so long, doing that shows a posture of openness and engagement in people’s concerns. Thanks for commenting.

Dale M. Posthumus

One of the biggest problems leaders must face, when it arises, is loyalty vs. bad behavior. How long do you stand behind your people (you must, or no one will trust you)? How bad or poor behavior must be to take action to punish the people involved? What is the correct level of punishment?

I would agree that he handled it more or less properly. When questions first arose, he asked each one of his staff if they knew anything. Each assured him they knew nothing. So, he defended his staff. When proof came forward that some of his staff lied to him and were involved, he fired them, took open questions, and took responsibility. President Obama’s reaction to the healthcare.gov fiasco has been more of a mixed bag in a less straight forward issue than what Christie faces. Obama took responsibility, but his Administration does not appear yet to have punished anyone “at fault”. The jury is still out, IMHO, because my position in such a situation is to fix the problem first, then look for the causes and follow-up actions.

Scott Kearby

I think he did some things that have been conspicuously absent in the actions of other elected leaders who have recently had to deal with scandals or significant failures.

1. As soon as he was aware of the facts, he took responsibility without evasion. He did not sugar coat the facts or diminish the problem, but acknowledged it quickly and publically.

2. He held those directly responsible accountable & took immediate action to remove them from public service for crossing the line (both for the betrayal of the public trust and the personal betrayal).

3. He personally took direct questions from the press for as long as they wanted to ask questions. He did not issue a statement and take no questions. He did not leave it to someone else to speak for him.

4. He apologized first via the press conference and then in person to the Mayor of Ft. Lee and to people on the street in Ft. Lee. He did not just say he was upset and disappointed because his staff had let him down. He did not say “at this point, what difference does it make?”. He did not say he was undermined by the opposition.

I don’t know how it could have been handled much better, but I do think that for every other way it could have been handled, there is no shortage of people around who would find fault no matter what.

Robin Paoli

Scott and Dale, your comments highlight another key crisis management point: Christie understood this had to be taken seriously. He recognized, or an advisor recognized and convinced him, that “BridgeGate” mattered for numerous reasons, including what it said about him and his administration. (Will we ever move beyond -gate suffixes?)

Press reports ask if Gov Christie is a bully, if he expects his staff to take a fall for him, and what really happened behind the scenes. I don’t know. Each adult, even the healthiest among us, carries some degree of pathology within us, and I can’t speak to who Chris Christie really is: good, bad or simply “normal” and flawed.

What I can speak to is his words and actions portrayed during and immediately after the press conference, and it was a direct, candid recognition of what happened vs what should have happened. Thanks for your comments.