Three Crisis Management Mistakes from Christie’s Bridgegate

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Crisis ManagementIt’s not hard to imagine that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s still-unfolding Bridgegate scandal could have taken a different turn. Lacking evidence, the allegations aired shortly after the George Washington Bridge closure last August would have faded away and remained in the public consciousness as little more than an unfounded urban legend in the Garden State’s history.

Instead, subpoenaed email communications between Christie’s staff members hit the press and turned the story into a career-altering scandal.

Electronic data is hard to refute, and in a digital society it inevitability means that, eventually, the truth will come out. Ripping the Band-Aid off a brewing scandal has always been the optimal response; today, trying to maintain the cover-up borders on insanity. And when laws have been broken and subpoena power is in play, the concept applies doubly.

In the case of the bridge-closure scandal, electronic records that didn’t even directly implicate Christie have proved powerful enough to affix his name to a scandal and keep it there for a month and counting. The 2016 presidential hopeful has seen his approval ratings drop, and despite his continued claims of innocence being blighted by a few rogue staff members, the public isn’t buying it. The uncovered webmail communications also made Christie and his associates’ practices fair game for intense scrutiny from federal prosecutors and the press (no doubt helped by operatives for the Democrats). He’s now fighting a separate scandal that raises the same questions about a retributive culture in his orbit, as well as continued reportage that has yielded some highly suggestive results.

Of course, any ultimate judgment of the governor’s public response hinges on a question to which only Christie and a few key staff members hold the definitive answer.

If Christie is telling the truth, he has performed admirably in the face of crisis. When the emails came out, he responded to the allegations swiftly and directly, pledged cooperation with investigators and said all the right things, conceding “mistakes were made” and that as governor, he is “ultimately responsible.” His rapid response also suggests that he and his communications team had some sort of crisis plan in place, which is vital to any organization or individual in the public eye.

However, if he’s lying—well, he has a lot riding on his assertion that he was uninvolved. If any part of his claims is found to be untrue, it will be his downfall.

Whether Christie is ultimately vindicated or buried, the Who-Ordered-the-Code Red scandal offers some good reminders for effective crisis management:

  1. The truth will surface. Records exist and people have knowledge, so sweeping things under the rug will invariably backfire. We leave behind increasing amounts of electronic data of all different flavors, and as time goes on the implications of those footprints will become clearer.
  2. Have in place a crisis plan and practice its administration with a few dry runs. Be ready to quickly assess facts, huddle with your legal team and determine your actual exposure to reach a well-reasoned decision on what you’ll disclose and when.
  3. When a real-life situation surfaces, it will bring with it dynamics that you sometimes can’t avoid. It’s when politics and egos are at play and one’s career is on the line that people start doing the wrong thing, and plans – no matter how well established – fall apart.

The reality is that Gov. Christie backed himself into a very lonely corner where he has no choice but to continue issuing denials. The time to emerge unharmed by admitting any involvement has long passed.

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Crisis ManagementIt’s not hard to imagine that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s still-unfolding Bridgegate scandal could have taken a different turn. Lacking evidence, the allegations aired shortly after the George Washington Bridge closure last August would have faded away and remained in the public consciousness as little more than an unfounded urban legend in the Garden State’s history.

Instead, subpoenaed email communications between Christie’s staff members hit the press and turned the story into a career-altering scandal.

Electronic data is hard to refute, and in a digital society it inevitability means that, eventually, the truth will come out. Ripping the Band-Aid off a brewing scandal has always been the optimal response; today, trying to maintain the cover-up borders on insanity. And when laws have been broken and subpoena power is in play, the concept applies doubly.

In the case of the bridge-closure scandal, electronic records that didn’t even directly implicate Christie have proved powerful enough to affix his name to a scandal and keep it there for a month and counting. The 2016 presidential hopeful has seen his approval ratings drop, and despite his continued claims of innocence being blighted by a few rogue staff members, the public isn’t buying it. The uncovered webmail communications also made Christie and his associates’ practices fair game for intense scrutiny from federal prosecutors and the press (no doubt helped by operatives for the Democrats). He’s now fighting a separate scandal that raises the same questions about a retributive culture in his orbit, as well as continued reportage that has yielded some highly suggestive results.

Of course, any ultimate judgment of the governor’s public response hinges on a question to which only Christie and a few key staff members hold the definitive answer.

If Christie is telling the truth, he has performed admirably in the face of crisis. When the emails came out, he responded to the allegations swiftly and directly, pledged cooperation with investigators and said all the right things, conceding “mistakes were made” and that as governor, he is “ultimately responsible.” His rapid response also suggests that he and his communications team had some sort of crisis plan in place, which is vital to any organization or individual in the public eye.

However, if he’s lying—well, he has a lot riding on his assertion that he was uninvolved. If any part of his claims is found to be untrue, it will be his downfall.

Whether Christie is ultimately vindicated or buried, the Who-Ordered-the-Code Red scandal offers some good reminders for effective crisis management:

  1. The truth will surface. Records exist and people have knowledge, so sweeping things under the rug will invariably backfire. We leave behind increasing amounts of electronic data of all different flavors, and as time goes on the implications of those footprints will become clearer.
  2. Have in place a crisis plan and practice its administration with a few dry runs. Be ready to quickly assess facts, huddle with your legal team and determine your actual exposure to reach a well-reasoned decision on what you’ll disclose and when.
  3. When a real-life situation surfaces, it will bring with it dynamics that you sometimes can’t avoid. It’s when politics and egos are at play and one’s career is on the line that people start doing the wrong thing, and plans – no matter how well established – fall apart.

The reality is that Gov. Christie backed himself into a very lonely corner where he has no choice but to continue issuing denials. The time to emerge unharmed by admitting any involvement has long passed.

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