How Not to Write a PR Statement

Chris Christie

By now you’re heard about New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and his “Bridge-gate” scandal. It broke yesterday morning when New Jersey and New York news outlets released emails that indicated Christie’s closest aides orchestrated four days of traffic jams in Ft. Lee, as retribution for that town’s Democratic mayor declining to endorse Christie’s bid for reelection. When the story broke yesterday, Christie canceled a public appearance. Eight hours later, his office released this statement:

“What I’ve seen today for the first time is unacceptable. I am outraged and deeply saddened to learn that not only was I misled by a member of my staff, but this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge. One thing is clear: this type of behavior is unacceptable and I will not tolerate it because the people of New Jersey deserve better. This behavior is not representative of me or my Administration in any way, and people will be held responsible for their actions.”

Somebody needs to be fired: the person or persons who assembled (“wrote” is too generous) that statement. Hard to believe it actually took eight hours to create it. In fact if you picked out one of every two citizens of New Jersey at random, put a gun to their head, and said “Talk!” this is probably what would come out… blustery accusation that sounds like toughness but actually blames somebody, anybody else and takes no accountability.

Let’s break it down, shall we?

“What I’ve seen today for the first time is unacceptable.” Now there’s a sentence. It casts away everything — context, explanation, setup — in a mad dash to get to the key point that Christie never saw the emails and knew nothing about them. And the mad dash ends in a Splat! ending on the lame, pseudo-censorious word “unacceptable.”

The next sentence is even worse. Grammatically, it breaks down like this:

“I am outraged and deeply saddened to learn that A) not only was I misled by a member of my staff, but B) this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge.”

In other words, “I am [adjective] to learn that this [adjective] conduct was made without my knowledge.” How do you learn that something was done without your knowledge? The Governor is using his second sentence to repeat, in pretzel-like doubled-up fashion, that he had no knowledge of the thing he said in his first sentence he had no knowledge about. That, my friend, is a whole lot of no knowledge.

Oh, and he was “misled by a member of my staff.” Finally, we get to somebody specific to blame. Well, not specific, but you know. Heading in the direction of specificity.

And more adjectives: this completely “inappropriate” and “unsanctioned” conduct. “Inappropriate” is almost as pseudo-censorious as “unacceptable,” and of course you know what “unsanctioned” means… it means he had no knowledge about it.

“One thing is clear.” Well, thank goodness for that. Because nothing has been clear so far, at least in this sorry excuse for a paragraph. What is this one thing that’s so clear?

“This type of behavior is unacceptable.”

Whoa. Think you already said that. Unacceptable, right.

“…and I will not tolerate it because the people of New Jersey deserve better.” Okay, well that’s two things that are clear, but who’s counting?

Again, let’s break it down. This is the only reason you won’t tolerate this kind of behavior? The reason you object to snarling up traffic for days at one of the only exits from the island of Manhattan to settle a petty political score is that people in one state (you screwed over New Yorkers, too, but let it pass) “deserve better”? Your staff caused thousands of people to be inconvenienced or worse for days. This is “behavior”?

Okay, well, let’s move on, because as a communications professional, as a former resident of New Jersey, as a human being… I’m losing patience with you.

“This behavior [again with the behavior] is not representative of me or my Administration in any way, and people will be held responsible for their actions.”

Now we get to the real problem for the first time: the fact that the worst part of this scandal is that it seems wholly representative of the Governor and his administration. It’s what Hemingway called the objective correlative, the specific detail that suggests the entire big picture. That’s what is so damaging about this story — it gets right at the thing people don’t like about Christie (they think he’s a bully), and makes it clear and relatable.

And finally, “people will be held responsible for their actions.” This is a cop-out in three ways at once: the use of the passive voice (who is the actor in this sentence? who will be holding these people responsible? nobody, it seems) — the use of the vague “people” — and the fact that this accountability will happen in some distant future. This triple backing away from actual responsibility gives the lie to all the other attempts to make Christie sound like a decisive leader. There is no leader present in this statement; there is only an injured and frightened ego.

“People will be held responsible for their actions.” Does the Governor still not know who is responsible? He had eight hours in which to ask some very direct questions, eight hours in which to get some answers, eight hours in which to fire these unnamed and apparently unknowable people… assuming the entire eight hours wasn’t spent crafting this pathetic, inadequate paragraph.

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