PR Lessons for Bridge Scandal-Hit Chris Christie
In truth, only a small portion of New Jersey voters found themselves caught in the epic traffic jam at the George Washington Bridge last September, but the fallout seems to threaten Gov. Chris Christie's broader national political aspirations.
Or does it?
In the business world, negative press can have a positive impact on business results -- if it's handled correctly. Automakers often find that publicized recalls bring brand loyalists to the dealerships looking for new car deals, while media coverage of hacking problems can sometimes help tech companies reach new audiences. The fact is, customers are often smarter than executives realize and understand the nuances behind most decisions. That's why they're seen as forgiving, to a point.
So what can Gov. Christie learn from businesses as he struggles to get out from under the bridge scandal?
Build the brand and be true to it. A strong brand is any company's biggest asset when it comes to its PR strategy, and it's something Christie has done effectively. For years he's focused on being an open, honest, "take charge" leader. However, the bridge scandal now plaguing the Christie camp suggests he has not always remained true to that image.
During Christie's long press conference, NBC's Chuck Todd tweeted:
Taking Christie at his word, he is now admitting that he is a hands OFF manager. Totally opposite of image he has sold for 5 years-- Chuck Todd (@chucktodd) January 9, 2014
While scandals may threaten even the strongest personas and company identities, how a subject handles a PR threat can fall within its brand strategy, possibly even reinforcing it. Cambridge, Mass.,-based Clover Food Lab understands the power of brand and hewing close to it. Clover had built a strong brand among foodies for its natural foods, sustainability practices and transparent communications. So a salmonella outbreak that made 27 people sick, forcing the health department to close the store, had the makings of a PR disaster. But when the restaurant's Harvard Square doors reopened on July 25, the line stretched down the block.
Because Clover spent time building a relationship with its customers based on transparency and organic food, they understood what goes into organic food and what may have led to the salmonella outbreak. They really "got" how the company worked and why they didn't need to worry.
After the fact, Clover Founder and CEO Ayr Muir earned praise for the openness with which he handled the situation. He broke the news himself on his blog, rather than hiding and hoping that no one found out. That's a solid crisis communications tactic, and one that's core to the company's brand image.
Use your existing channels and don't hide. Christie's immediate firing of aid Bridget Kelly as well as his long apology press conference is a start, but it's important for him to answer questions as they arise.
Buffer, a popular service that lets users share their updates on different social platforms over time, had its own problems recently when hackers grabbed hold of users' accounts and filled the social scene with spam. The company's communications plan was to essentially do what they always did: keep users informed through the corporate blog. They had a communications infrastructure in place and just went ahead and used it.
The results? The number of people who downgraded off a paid account rose sharply right after the attack, but then quickly returned to normal levels. In the few days after the attack they saw an immediate spike in new signups. In his blog post on the topic, CEO Joel Gascoigne attributes the spike to their transparency throughout the ordeal.
Trust your audience. While the media may be asking tough and necessary questions of Christie and his administration, the people are the true audience. Christie must trust them, trust that they understand the story and can know how it fits into the overall narrative of his administration.
Sqrrl Data offers a lesson on trust. Founded by a group of NSA veterans, the executives worried that Edward Snowden's leaks about the NSA surveillance programs would tarnish the startup.
According to a Boston Globe article, reporters started calling the founders, asking them about their role in the surveillance and turning an aspect of their business they originally thought was an asset into a supposed liability. The team hunkered down and had internal meetings to decide what to do. Their initial reaction was to take the exact opposite approach to Clover's Muir; rather than communicate with their stakeholders more, they communicated less. Internally, they even discussed postponing a long-planned launch.
Finally, Sqrrl moved forward by talking about their NSA ties and quickly found that the connection actually helped their business. Consumers understood that the NSA background was, in fact, an asset. Site traffic soared and customers came in droves.
The fact is, core audiences, whether they be consumers or voters, are smart. They know that companies and political administrations are complex beasts with different inputs and outputs. People make decisions, whether that be signing onto a service or offering a vote, because they understand the benefits regardless of any crisis.
Communications can help, but not change, a troubled organization. While there may be a positive business jump for companies engaged in a crisis PR situation, the brand metrics may show a temporary downward trend. A solid communications strategy can help those metrics rebound quicker than they would on their own.
But any crisis communications strategy depends on honesty. An organization must acknowledge what went wrong, the actions it's taking to fix the problems and how it will do things differently in the future. Only then can the brand truly recover.
As many pundits have noted, if Christie is later proven to be lying about being uniformed by his staffers, that will haunt him more than the scandal itself.
Ultimately PR is no fix for fundamental problems. An organization that has deep business problems will see itself implode, and no amount of work from the PR team can alleviate that.
Chuck Tanowitz is a vice president with HB Agency, an integrated communications company that offers public relations, branding, design and marketing services. His clients rely on his expertise to help set strategy that combines content, social and media relations to reach all their audiences. His blog can be found here.