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A Bridge Too Far?

Last week, a large number of eyes in the political world shifted toward my home state of New Jersey as the governor there, Chris Christie, took the podium to answer questions about something called “Bridgegate,” the most reported traffic jam in the history of the world. If you haven’t followed all the internecine developments in the story, I offer my congratulations and this link by way of background.
I was riveted by the nearly 120 minute press conference, not just because I was raised on Jersey politics but because it was like a graduate seminar in crisis communication. And the parallels between state government and institutions of higher education are compelling – both are large, complex organizations that are subject to a great deal of scrutiny.
Watching the press conference with the  tenets of crisis communication in mind, I gave the governor points for taking every question the press corps threw at him. Or at least the vast majority of them. A two-hour gubernatorial press conference is almost unheard of, but Governor Christie’s team clearly understood that taking only a handful of questions before ushering the press out of the room wasn’t going to fly. At the same time, by answering so many questions so definitively, he has made himself vulnerable should contradictory information be discovered later.
The governor’s tone of humility and contrition was well calibrated. Gone (mostly) was the aggressive, sometimes combative tone that has garnered Christie a lot of accolades but also gotten him in trouble from time to time. It is worth noting, however, that departing so markedly from his usual tone (which is an integral part of his personal brand) might lead to questions of authenticity – did his comments ring true?
Governor Christie also used his remarks to accept responsibility and apologize. In the first three sentences he spoke, he used the word “apologize” three times. He also acknowledged that as chief executive, he is ultimately responsible for the actions of his staff.
And finally, Governor Christie outlined the actions he would take in response to “Bridgegate.” In addition to terminating the employment of two members of his inner circle, the governor also said he would travel to Fort Lee to apologize directly to the town’s mayor and its citizens for the traffic jam created by the closure of bridge approach lanes.
Taken all together, this was a very by-the-book crisis response—if I were to grade it, I’d probably end up somewhere in the B range. However, as communicators know, crisis response is a process that doesn’t end when the press conference wraps up. As this situation continues to unfold, I encourage you to keep an eye on how Governor Christie manages the public communication aspect of new developments and think about the lessons that can be applied to your own work.
And just because it’s the weekend, here’s one bit of comedy that came out of Bridgegate…Jimmy Fallon and the ultimate Jersey guy, Bruce Springsteen, singing about the traffic jam.