Gov. Christie Learns A Lesson in Perception

Nero fiddled while Rome burned. That’s a saying and a perception that has lived on for centuries. The post-Christmas blizzard that hit the east coast has caused a major perception problem for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. State roads that went unpaved for two days were blamed on Christie’s administration. Why? The Governor was on a family vacation in Disney World while his Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno was in Mexico. A void in leadership was filled by the Senate President Stephen Sweeney, placed into the role of acting Governor due to their vacations.

A failure by many municipalities to clear roadways and for County and State highways to be impassable due to a lack of sufficient snow plowing led to great anger among New Jersey residents. For many, the perception was about leadership. The position of Lieutenant Governor was approved by voters and made law a year ago, with Guadagno becoming the first to hold the position. This was created expressly to ensure that the Administration would have someone at the controls at all times. In the past, the Senate President would constitutionally assume governing duties when the Governor was out of state.

So, why did Christie allow his Lieutenant Governor to take vacation at the same time that he did? That was the million dollar question being asked by citizens and political opponents. Of course, Christie could not have envisioned a natural weather disaster like the day after Christmas blizzard occurring when he made his choice. However, after being elected with the first lieutenant governor in the state’s history, it had to stand to reason that Christie would never allow having both key administration leaders absent from the state at any given time.

Christie’s absence has given ammunition to his critics to use now and down the line. Already, a liberal political group in Washington D.C. has launched a website http://www.WheresChristie.com. The site is a takeoff on the popular children’s book, “Where’s Waldo?”

An Asbury Park Press editorial today points to the Governor needing to supply answers for the breakdown in the snow removal process and why the Governor didn’t cut short his vacation and return to New Jersey to seemingly steer the crisis. These are valid points but they also point to perception issues. Governor Christie may very well have been in touch with state officials all during the blizzard situation. However, to the general public and the media, the perception was that he was enjoying a family vacation in Orlando while the state shoveled out.

This could all have been avoided if the Governor had applied essential crisis communications tools in planning the process for travel for both he and the Lieutenant Governor. The most obvious would have been to insist from day one that since the new position was now part of the state constitution, there would not be any reason to have the Governor or Lieutenant Governor absent from the state.

Since that was not done, Christie should have created a mini-command center in Orlando, whereby he could be seen by the public via satellite interviews with local media, respond to state officials and seemingly be involved in the crisis planning, even though the state constitution places governing in the hands of the Acting Governor. Once flights were restored he should have traveled home. By being publicly engaged, Christie could have avoided some of the perceptions that are out there about the state being rudderless in a crisis.

Whether you are a governor of a state, CEO of a company or just a small proprietor, public perception can determine the fate of your business. President George W. Bush’s eight years in office were marked by two wars, the 9-11 attacks and a financial crisis in his final months in office. However, despite whether you were a supporter of his policies or not, many would feel that the delayed responses of the government to Hurricane Katrina were the biggest negative perception of the Bush years.

President Bush in his newly published memoirs discusses Hurricane Katrina and his reaction to the crisis and the negative connotation it had on his presidency. Bush’s eight years are complete so he cannot alter the course of history.

Christie still has three years left on his term to make good. He can turn a negative perception positive by securing federal emergency relief for areas of the state hit hardest by the storm, conducting a full investigation of what went wrong with the process and then setting a new policy to ensure that it cannot happen again. If not, regardless of what he accomplishes as governor, he will forever be painted by his opponents and detractors as going to Disney World while the state shoveled out.

Tom Cosentino

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