Christie says he wouldn’t have come home to drive a plow or shovel people out himself just to make it seem he was on the case. Leadership was selecting a strong cabinet to get the job done in his absence.
But communications experts who have advised governors during times of crisis say there is a lot Christie could have done differently to reassure the public and prevent what has become an international flap. And, in general, they give him bad reviews for the way he responded last week.
Most importantly, he could have returned sooner, said Bob Mann, who served as communications director to Louisiana’s former Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco during Hurricane Katrina.
“It boggles the mind that a governor would abandon his state in the midst of a natural disaster,” said Mann, who is now a political communications professor at Louisiana State University. “He was in Disney World for crying out loud, of all places. That’s the worse image that you could possibly have.”
Being seen as on the job during a disaster is important, Mann said. While many people are willing to forgive current Republican Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s frequent cross-country fundraising trips, it would not have been as forgivable if he left after the BP oil spill, Mann said.
During Hurricane Katrina, Mann said they worked to ensure Blanco was being seen often as engaging in the recovery effort. Governors in Louisiana are often forced to cancel plans to leave the state when a hurricane starts brewing in the Gulf, Mann said. Being out of state even with the possibility of a storm would not bode well.
Christie said he wasn’t breaking a promise to his children to visit Disney World last week. And it wouldn’t have mattered where he was, Christie said, the state would have responded the same.
Ken Hunter, president of the state’s chapter of the Public Relations Society of America, said the ruckus over Christie’s vacation is getting overblown. Had Christie been the head of a company and not a politician, no one would have said a word about his absence, Hunter said.
Instead, Democrats were quick to point out that not only was the governor gone, but Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno was vacationing with her ailing father in Mexico, leaving Democratic Senate President Stephen Sweeney in charge.
“Political people can’t wait to put out a press release for any misstep,” said Hunter, who is a vice president at R&J Public Relations in Bridgewater. “A week from now nobody will even remember any of this.”
Politicians who decide to remain away for a vacation during a crisis can still take steps to save their image, said Gene Grabowski, head of the crisis communications section of the Washington, D.C., public relations firm Levick Strategic Communications.
If he went out later to ride his horse, a now famous image of Reagan on his ranch, it was done only after ensuring everyone knew work came first, said Grabowski, who advised former Gov. Jim McGreevey on public relations when he resigned. Grabowski also worked on responses to Guantánamo criticism.
“History has shown that public officials will be appreciated for paying attention and giving remote instructions and being involved until they get back to the scene,” Grabowski said.
In addition to reassuring the public, Grabowski said, there are ways to ensure more controversy isn’t created.
One of the biggest mistakes an official can make is to seem unconcerned, said Grabowski. The public will forgive a governor for taking a break from the fast-paced life of governing, even in a snowstorm, he said.
“What they won’t forgive is statements or actions that indicate that they don’t care enough about their constituents’ concerns,” Grabowski said. A recent example, Grabowski said, was when former BP CEO Tony Hayward remarked he wanted his “life back” after the Gulf oil spill.
In response to criticism about the governor being gone, Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak saud “the world is not coming to an end” and told The Hill, a Washington, D.C., political magazine, “the sky really is not falling.” Christie said he saw nothing wrong with Drewniak’s comments. Drewniak said his remarks weren’t meant to seem flippant, only to respond to exaggerated comments by partisan opponents.
“I would agree with what my spokesman said: The world did not come to and end,’ Christie said Friday. “Drewniak is flippant, that’s part of his charm.”
To help his public image, Christie should have been more apologetic, Mann said.
“Telling people that, ‘I was really on the job,’ that ‘I really was in control. Who are you going to believe? Me or your lying eyes?’ ” Mann said. “Everyone knows he was in Disney World and he didn’t cut short his vacation.”
The public loses trust in a public official when they are not around in a disaster, said Yi Luo, a Montclair State University public relations professor.
“To restore public trust and confidence in his leadership, Gov. Chris Christie should own up to his responsibility and make a public statement ensuring that similar incidents will not happen again,” Luo said. “Such candid communication is much more effective than a defensive statement to garner public support.”
After mounting criticism of the snow removal efforts in New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg did just that, apologizing publicly for delays in clearing roads.
In defending his administration, Christie said he was willing to “take the heat” for the response, but went on to say every part of the state efforts had been successful.
While Christie’s public image may be jostled now, it could mean little for his long-term political muster, Mann said.
“I’m speaking from a state that just re-elected (U.S. Sen.) David Vitter, who admitted to having sex with hookers,” Mann said. “There is definitely a way a politician can rebound.”