The Demise of Secrecy

Jonathan Bernstein crisis communications, crisis management, Crisis Prevention, crisis public relations, Crisis Response, Erik Bernstein, Jonathan Bernstein, public relations, reputation management Leave a Comment

A Lesson in Crisis Avoidance

[Editor’s note:This is a particularly timely post from Rick Kelly, as Chris Christie joins the ever-swelling ranks of public figures who have fallen from grace (or at least risked it big time) by letting their personal feelings triumph over common sense.]

This Sept. 12, 2013 photo provided by the Office of the Governor of New Jersey shows Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly during a tour with Gov. Chris Christie of the Seaside Heights, N.J. boardwalk, after it was hit by a massive fire. Christie fired Kelly Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014, and apologized over and over for his staff’s “stupid” behavior, insisting during a nearly two-hour news conference that he had no idea anyone around him had engineered traffic jams as part of a political vendetta against a Democratic mayor. (AP Photo/Office of Gov. Chris Christie, Tim Larsen) Read more here.

The following is a guest post by Rick Kelly, director of the crisis communications practice at Triad Strategies, LLC. He is not related to Bridget Anne Kelly.

Let’s try, for just a moment, to set aside the utter idiocy of concocting a political “prank” that intentionally caused several days of traffic gridlock on one of the world’s most heavily traveled bridges, inconveniencing thousands upon thousands of people.

In the roiling New Jersey “Bridge-gate” fiasco, high-level political operatives of Gov. Chris Christie, supposedly unbeknownst to the governor, allegedly attempted to exact political revenge by arranging to shut down multiple lanes of the George Washington Bridge, ostensibly to conduct a traffic study.

The stunt and its aftermath provide us with an important lesson that can help you avoid a crisis. The lesson is absolutely free, as long as you’re up to learning from the mistakes of others.

Simply put, anyone in a position to make a decision about, or participate in, a notorious act should assume that his or her involvement will be discovered.

Maybe we’ve read too many Vince Flynn novels, but here in the Digital Age, “secrecy” is as much a myth as “the Tooth Fairy.” From the satellites minding our national security to the surveillance camera at the corner drug store, with an assist from your E-Z Pass transponder or GPS nav system, the cookies you accumulate while surfing the web and your now-indispensible mobile phone, there is no longer any such thing as being “off the grid.”

That aluminum-foil hat you’re wearing, while perhaps stylish in some circles, won’t help either. And the more prominent you are, the greater your chances for someone noticing what you’re up to. Senior gubernatorial staff members qualify as “prominent,” along with elected officials, business magnates, athletes, entertainers and royalty.

The senior gubernatorial staffer in New Jersey figured she could avoid discovery by using her private email account rather than her work email account. Nope. A little ol’ subpoena loosened those private account emails right up, and they proved to be the proverbial smoking gun.

To you Ron Swansons out there who rail against government tyranny arising from the overly enthusiastic use of surveillance technology by the NSA and other governmental agencies, dudes, that ship left port years ago. What, you don’t like your government keeping tabs on you? How about having someone else’s government keeping tabs on you?

Andy Warhol is known for saying, “In the future everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” As it turns out, he grossly underestimated the time interval. In the Digital Age, a misguided miscreant can be famous forever.

So here’s the lesson for today: let’s say you find yourself considering a political “prank” that could deprive even one person of receiving timely medical attention due to intentionally induced traffic congestion. Forget about the ethics and cut to the chase. Just calculate the odds of being caught.

Those odds will be directly proportional to the level of mayhem you create. For a five-day traffic jam in a densely populated area, which thwarted emergency responders and may even have contributed to the death of a 91-year-old cardiac arrest victim, you should probably calculate the odds of being caught at just about 100 percent.


Rick Kelly directs the crisis management practice at Triad Strategies LLC, a Harrisburg, PA-based governmental relations and strategic communications firm. Click here for more information

This post originally appeared on the Triad Strategies blog.

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