We will likely never know the true intention of New Jersey Gov. Christies’ July 4 weekend trip to his private beach while the adjacent state park beach was closed due to his government‘s shutdown. Was it a “let them eat cake” gesture, or simply a callous obliviousness to how his behavior would be perceived? It doesn’t matter. Perception is reality. His beach trip was interpreted as an “in your face” message to New Jersey’s lawmakers and citizens. It created a firestorm of negative press and outrage from people across the country. There are lessons here for leaders, event planners, and protocol professionals.
Every move our principals make, whether they are university presidents, elected officials, military officers, or corporate CEOs, is only a disgruntled tweet or unflattering cell phone photo away from controversy. The university president leaves an awards function early. Some will interpret the fact as someone has angered her, or she disapproves of something, when in reality, she has to attend two more events before day’s end. The mayor doesn’t show up for a ribbon cutting instead sending a surrogate because an urgent matter has arisen at city hall. People may read this as a snub to the new business. The senator doesn’t personally greet everyone in the room leaving some people feeling slighted. They make negative comments on social media.
In an interesting ed.TED talk called, “Truth vs. Perception vs. Reality,” (ed.ted.com/on/AsddeXsA) Trevor Maber gives an insightful explanation of how our brains zoom to conclusions based on what we see when a current situation is compared against our experiences, emotions, and assumptions. Sadly, our brains often jump to incorrect conclusions because we don’t have all the facts. We believe what we see.
While we can’t control the behavior of our principals, we can help steer them away from potential perception PR disasters by
- Being situationally aware. Knowing the issues and political climate, who will be present and what their agendas might be. (The mood of the populace after losing their traditional July 4 beach visit was not favorable.)
- Being willing to modify plans to enhance or avoid situations. (An announcement from the podium during the president’s introduction that she is present to welcome the gathering and then must leave, could potentially avoid negative speculation.)
- Being willing to make suggestions to the boss and apprise him or her of possible situations or consequences. (People might be angered, sir, if you use your private beach when theirs is closed.)
An important component of leadership is leading by example, and most seasoned leaders do this very well, but sometimes, principals may not realize how their behavior might be perceived. The governor had the perfect right to sit on his private beach, regardless of what anyone might think. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t bad PR.
As event planners and protocol professionals it is our job to help prevent disastrous episodes by thinking and acting in the best interest of our leaders to avoid potential problems. Afterall, we are the people responsible for arrangements, itineraries, and guest lists.
A five-course gourmet meal with expensive wines for the board of trustees on the day they vote to increase tuition and announce no pay raises, is an unseemly juxtaposition and one that could easily be avoided. An astute planner would discreetly and quickly work with the chef to modify plans.
The next time the planner sees the supposedly snubbed supporter’s name on a guest list, she cues the boss and tactfully orchestrates a personal greeting.
In the case of the beach outing, a planner could diplomatically offer a list of enticing alternative activities.
Some principals accept guidance readily and others may never do so. But while suggestions and work-arounds may not always be adopted, you’ll sleep better knowing you did your best to avoid a problem.