Monday, March 30, 2020

The Optics Of It All: How's Murphy Doin'?

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy (second  from left) at a St. Patrick's Day
parade in North Jersey on March 9. 
New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy has been getting lots of face time these days.
In fact, it's hard to access any media without seeing or hearing from or reading about Murphy.
He' all there, all the time. So much so that there's no "period, full stop" as Murphy would say.
Since New Jersey is number two in the nation for coronavirus cases, the Governor's high visibility makes sense. Plus, the Governor must be given much credit for sheer stamina as he's just come off cancer surgery and we all wish him well and are cheering for his speedy recovery.
Which brings us to the question: From a PR standpoint, how is Murphy doin'?
Well, he's definitely following some tried and true crisis communication rules: stay visible; give frequent updates; bring in a team of experts; remain in command.
But in a moment such as this when the state and its leader are engulfed in a prolonged emergency situation, Murphy is bound to be compared to his predecessor, Governor Chris Christie. 
Who can forget Chris Christie during superstorm Sandy? Christie literally rewrote the book on crisis communication. His famous "get the hell off the beach" command became a worldwide soundbite.
Christie seemed to be everywhere at once: cheering flood-ravaged Jerseyans; commandeering the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi; dominating social media; comforting those who lost their homes; prodding Congress to act and even seemingly throwing politics to the wind by cozying up to President Obama to accelerate federal action. Christie acted instinctively with passion and determination and he took risks to carry out his mission. And the optics were unforgettable. In fact, Christie's distinctive Navy blue fleece pullovers (he reportedly had 27 of 'em) became so iconic that they were lauded by the fashionistas of Vanity Fair.
A second drawback for Murphy comes in the form of the non-stop performance of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, or "The LuvGov," as he has been dubbed by some. Cuomo has so dominated the media that many are suggested that he could somehow supplant the hapless Joe Biden as the Democrats' eventual 2020 presidential nominee. At the very least, some feel that Biden (notwithstanding his promise to pick a woman) will accept Cuomo as his running mate.
Cuomo's relentless briefings are all over the place. Watch his dark, penetrating eyes dance as he shifts from anger to sorrow to resolve to compassion to admonition to gratitude and so on. Listen to his voice and take note of his cadence as his speech ebbs and flows. Pay attention as he tells stories and appears to reveal bits and pieces of himself. It's like some kind of spontaneous Grand Opera. And it's gained national and even international attention.
Among public officials in the midst of this growing calamity, Andrew Cuomo is the new diva. His bulldog features notwithstanding, he appears to be a solid hit with suburban women even though in certain quarters he's most surely tagged a "drama queen." And since Cuomo is an impeccably-credentialed liberal, he gets automatic kudos from the media.
So, here's Murphy stuck with the legacy of Christie and in the shadows of Cuomo. Christie haunts him with a tough act to follow while Cuomo curses him with spillover coronavirus cases from New York that permeate the atmosphere like stale leftovers. What's a guy to do?
Murphy's not a politician by nature. And he doesn't really come across as a people person. He's a former ambassador and high-stakes investor who lives in a waterside mansion and has vacation homes in Europe. He's seems to be accustomed to a more rarified, deferential atmosphere.
In the middle of all this he can come across as authoritarian and dismissive at times, like when he issues sweeping edicts or invites doomsday scenarios. For example, it was a mistake to allow the state's top health official to say of the virus "we're all going to get it." That's an immediate invitation to widespread panic. And Murphy should have probably avoided getting into a spat with a leading Second Amendment advocate over the state's decision to close gun shops. But the Governor is an ardent progressive who seems to weave his ideology into every aspect of his stewardship. The point is that ideology and crisis style leadership don't mix because ideology binds. And, it thwarts the sort of flexibility that effective leadership requires under these ever-changing circumstances. Indeed, Murphy arguably had a chance to show adaptability by permitting gun sales under New Jersey's already stringent rules and he blew it.
Don't look for unnecessary combat. Be flexible. Don't cling to dogma. Don't fuel fear or trigger panic. All of these rules of crisis communication generally serve a leader well at a time like this. Don't Murphy's advisors know this?
To be fair, it's not like Murphy can rush to the frontlines of the battle. He can't hug victims. He can't pat courageous health care workers on the back. He can't go into the trenches and foxholes of this ongoing war. And he was right to both blast and take swift action against an alleged "Corona Party" in Ewing where 47 people reportedly gathered. That's the kind of opportunity Murphy can take advantage of.
In the end, you can be sure of this: Murphy will use whatever visuals he can gather from this crisis to bolster his re-election campaign next year, even weaving in the kind words he's been getting from President Trump --  a man who The Governor has never treated fairly. And second, Murphy will cry poor once this crisis ebbs and pivot to his favorite topic, taxes -- including calls for a millionaires' tax, a boost in the sales tax, an end to homestead rebates and a bunch of other levies.
Or, as any big-government, tax-happy progressive will tell you: Never let a good crisis go to waste.

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