Optics. It’s the current PR buzzword for “how it looks.” This week, when the president shared warm smiles and handshakes with world leaders, it was good optics. When the vice president, while visiting NASA, placed his hand on equipment clearly marked “Do Not Touch,” that was bad optics.
But New Jersey Governor Chris Christie gets the Bad Optics of the Week award. As he and the state legislature failed to agree on a budget, more than 50 state parks, historic sites and recreational areas had to close as vacationers from New Jersey and beyond were planning their extended Fourth of July holiday weekend.
Yet, on July 2, there was Christie and his family enjoying an empty state-owned beach. The governor was dressed in shorts, flip-flops and a t-shirt, plopped in a beach chair and staring up at the helicopter from which pictures were taken by a New Jersey Star-Ledger photographer. Photos of Chris Christie with the beach all to himself wound up all over social and traditional media. Bad optics.
Christie’s family had spent part of the day on Island Beach State Park, where there’s a state-owned governor’s residence, while thousands of his constituents were shut out. “On Saturday, the governor had defended using a state park that is closed to the rest of the state’s residents due to the budget impasse,” reported NPR. “Christie told reporters that his family doesn’t use any state services while there, and emphasized that his residence is separate from the park. With his trademark brusqueness, Christie told state residents how they could enjoy the beach. ‘Run for governor, and you can have a residence there,’ he said.”
It’s an understatement to say that New Jerseyans were displeased.
I’ve often referred to a favorite publication of mine about public relations mistakes, Steve Adubato’s 2009 book, What Were They Thinking? Crisis Communication: The Good, the Bad, and the Totally Clueless. Professional communicators are constantly amazed at how important people continue to make such obvious, avoidable PR gaffes. Maybe Chris Christie didn’t think there’d be photographers around. Or maybe he just doesn’t care about optics. Your thoughts?