Christie and the PR Apologia

A Facebook friend yesterday called Chris Christie’s apology a perfect example of transparency. Another called it the Sgt. Schultz defense.

Who’s right? It’s a matter of perspective. Do you see Christie as a credible, effective leader and possible presidential contender? Or do you see him as a boardwalk bully who will do whatever it takes to vanquish a rival — no matter who is affected?

If you missed the story, the NJ Guv yesterday profusely apologized (I am shocked, shocked…) for the conduct of several top staffers who engineered a 4-day traffic jam on the George Washington bridge connecting Jersey to Manhattan. Lane closures were the brainchild of the Guv’s aides, Christie says, and were intended as retribution against the mayor of Ft. Lee, NJ, who decided not to endorse Christie’s re-election run last fall. Ft. Lee is situated on the west end of the bridge.

This story is an emotional one, at least among those who suffer daily commutes to Manhattan. They’re pissed. Really pissed. For the rest of us it’s pretty much a ho-hum — just another story of appointed and/or elected officials doing what they do to stay in power, public be damned.

I began thinking about a lesson that I serve up in my PR Case Studies class — a lesson on logos, pathos and ethos. It comes from Aristotle’s “On Rhetoric,” and it focuses on the attributes of effective persuasion. The concept of ethos is “an appeal to authority or the credibility of the presenter.” In short, if the source of the message is trusted, the message will carry more weight (no pun intended).

If you trust Christie, there’s a good chance you will see his apology as authentic. If you don’t trust him, you may already have begun to use the term “Bridgegate” and to invoke the words of Tricky Dick.

The facts — at least at this point — really don’t matter. It’s all about the source.

In public relations, most of us have mastered the art of the apology. But too often, we fool ourselves into thinking that a sincere mea culpa will makes everything OK. Did Christie know about the plan to logjam Ft. Lee? As I write this, you can bet that every newspaper in New York Metro is filing a freedom-of-information request to get at the documents emails that might identify the villains. And when the indictments begin to roll (a crime was likely committed here), so will some additional heads.

Will one of those heads be Christie’s? Ah, great tabloid fodder for the next six months, isn’t it?

If you measure Christie’s apology against PR best practices, he did just fine. He took responsibility, promised a full accounting and told the world how sorry he was for the transgressions of his lieutenants. He seemed sincere and even made a personal visit to the Mayor of Fr. Lee to express his regrets.

But when you engage in actions that are unethical and possibly criminal, the apology is the least of your worries. I don’t have a solution to this sort of recurring dumbassery. Maybe it starts with hiring people of integrity and rewarding their ethical conduct. That’s a tall order in 21st century politics. But remember, good people doing good deeds seldom have to say they’re sorry.

Excellent report and commentary by Gail Collins of NYT.

Update (1/11/14) Just spotted this fine post from Gerry Corbett, former national chair of PRSA. Career Lessons from Bridgegate: Don’t be a Savior or a Martyr

3 thoughts on “Christie and the PR Apologia

  1. For the generation who has no idea who Sgt. Schultz is, let’s call the apology Acon-esque: “Sorry that it took so long to see, but they were dead wrong trying to put it on me. Sorry that it took so long to speak, I was on tour with Gwen Stefani… I mean running for president…I’m just a politician trying to run the state, but because I love my constituents I’ll take that blame…”

  2. Taking responsibility means more than saying you do so. As I have said elsewhere, Christie’s use of the passive construction “mistakes were made” runs counter to his claim of answerability – as does his view of himself as the chief victim in this situation, the target of lying and betrayal.

    His best Captain Renaud impression notwithstanding, Christie’s record in office (and especially on camera) bears out his “bully” reputation (e.g., he employs a videographer whose sole job is to capture Christie’s confrontations with his critics). And while he gets points for his marathon podium performance yesterday, there’s still a lot left unsaid. Such as:

    – Christie claims that he found only out about the shenanigans Wednesday; he has also claimed recently that he had been fully briefed on the matter by his staff. If that’s the case, why wouldn’t he demand that Kelly account for her actions before summarily firing her? My guess is that he either didn’t want to know what she would say, or knew already and didn’t want to hear it.

    – Despite his late arrival to the party, surely the resignations of Christie’s Port Authority appointees raised red flags, yes? And when those appointees lawyered up after resigning? In his experience as a prosecutor, is that common behavior for those who anticipate no legal difficulties?

    On a related note, the mayoral-endorsement theory behind the Fort Lee debacle is now being overtaken by one involving state judicial appointees, and is borne out at least superficially by the timing of Kelly’s now-infamous “traffic problems for Fort Lee” message to Wildstein.

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