Governor Christie, PR and Apologizing

Political Communication, PR Add comments

There has been much discussion in the news media and in PR circles of late about the need for organization leaders to apologize sincerely, profusely and immediately whenever a crisis arises. I myself participated in some of that dialogue and stand by what I said about Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, the CEO of Montreal Main and Atlantic Railway, as well as many others on my blog, in my tweets and during media interviews.

Now, in the wake of much praise for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and his two-hour apology tour de force, I’m beginning to wonder if the practice of public relations is now being reduced to the art of a really good and really fast apology. Certainly, in the way that I practice PR and the way that I teach it, PR is much more than apologizing.

  • PR is about organization leaders understanding risk, reputation and relationships. It’s about those leaders surrounding themselves with people who also understand these things and make smart, ethical decisions.
  • PR is about proactively considering planned actions and determining what the risk and reward profile really is. What may seem like a great idea one evening can quickly become a foreseeable disaster by the light of day. This is only true, of course, if you wait the night and reflect in the morning.
  • PR is about fostering an organizational culture in which it is not acceptable to keep leaders in the dark in order to protect them. PR professionals understand that plausible deniability comes with too much risk and, in the end, much less reward than simply doing the right things.
  • PR is about establishing and maintaining positive relationships with the news media and with colleagues so that potentially embarrassing correspondence is not leaked.
  • PR is about earning and maintaining the loyalty of your colleagues and not throwing them under the bus in the most public way possible. That way, tension and the risk of public contradiction are mitigated, not heightened.
  • PR is about striving to maintain positive momentum – in terms of media coverage, public opinion and relationships – rather than taking an uncalculated  risk and pushing the pendulum hard in the negative direction.

By these measures, and others, what Chris Christie did around the “bridgegate” crisis is not really impressive. It is by no means a demonstration of best practices that ought to be emulated. It is not measurably better than Prime Minister Harper’s performance on the Senate scandal – faster, perhaps but not better. More recently, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau showed the same lack of PR judgment by not insisting that all of his expense claims be scrutinized to ensure no errors were made. After the events of the last 12 months in the Senate, that kind of care and caution should have been automatic.

I’m left with the uneasy feeling that the practice of public relations is slowly being reduced to apologizing – mopping up after organization leaders have messed up. A more strategic and proactive approach would serve every one far better.

PS: I should note that I happened across Bill Sledzik’s thoughtful post on Christie and the PR Apologia the day after I wrote the outline for this post. It helped clarify some of my thinking and convinced me to move from outline to post. It is well worth your read: http://toughsledding.com .

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