• Dusty Weis

Lead Balloon Ep. 23 - Bridgegate: Behind the Scenes at the Port Authority During the Scandal



With Anthony Hayes -- Known as the scandal that ended Governor Chris Christie's presidential ambitions, we look back at Bridgegate from a PR perspective.


The George Washington Bridge between Manhattan and New Jersey is the world’s busiest motor vehicle crossing, carrying more than 103 million vehicles a year over the Hudson River.

And so in 2013, when accusations came out that hand-picked members of former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s staff deliberately caused massive traffic backups on and around the bridge, the story made national headlines... and that was before revelations that the shenanigans were likely tied to political motivations.


But for Anthony Hayes, the Bridgegate scandal was more than a flashy cable news headline. As the Assistant Director of Communications and Media at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, it was his job to manage the public relations fallout from the scandal.


Anthony’s tale is a telling tutorial in managing the reputation of a public institution damaged by private petty partisanship. And his behind-the-scenes insights shed new light on a scandal that many say ended Chris Christie’s 2016 presidential campaign before it really even had a chance to get off the ground.



Transcript:


Dusty Weis:

The George Washington Bridge between Manhattan and New Jersey is the world's busiest motor vehicle crossing, carrying more than a hundred and three million vehicles a year over the Hudson River. That means that hundreds of thousands of people every day depend on the GWB as a critical connection to work, commerce, culture and home.


Dusty Weis:

And so in 2013, when accusations came out that handpicked members of former New Jersey governor Chris Christie's staff deliberately caused massive traffic backups on and around the bridge, there was a bit of a scandal.


News Anchor:

Governor Chris Christie's administration said it is all part of a traffic study. It was believed someone within the administration was trying to punish a democratic New Jersey mayor.


Dusty Weis:

But for Anthony Hayes, the Bridgegate scandal was more than a flashy cable news headline. As the assistant director of communications and media at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, it was his job to manage the public relations fallout.


Anthony Hayes:

When there's something that it's this big of a political crisis that involves two governors, multiple bodies of people investigating, subpoenas, et cetera, our team was just managing so much complexity and Bridgegate was a piece of it.


Dusty Weis:

Anthony's tale is a telling tutorial in managing the reputation of a public institution damaged by private petty partisanship. And his behind-the-scenes insights shed new light on a scandal that many say ended Chris Christie's 2016 presidential campaign before it really even ever had a chance to get off the ground. I'm Dusty Weis from Podcamp Media. This is Lead Balloon, a podcast about PR marketing and branding disasters and the well-meaning communications professionals who live them.


Dusty Weis:

Thanks for tuning in. Check out Podcamp Media on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. And if you're at Podcast movement this week, the world's largest podcasting conference, come and find me. I'm speaking in a panel discussion on Thursday about podcasts for brands and I would love to make your acquaintance. We're joined now by Anthony Hayes, founder of The Hayes Initiative, a public affairs and strategic communications firm in New York.


Dusty Weis:

Anthony's last stop before striking out on his own was to serve on the advanced team for Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign specializing in crisis management, an experience that I can only imagine took years off of his life. He previously served as VP of public affairs for GMHC overseeing communications and marketing in their battle against the aids epidemic.


Dusty Weis:

And from 2011 to 2014, he was the assistant director of communications and media at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. That is where our story begins today. So, Anthony Hayes, thank you for joining us on Lead Balloon.


Anthony Hayes:

Thanks for having me. I'm very excited to be here.


Dusty Weis:

It's funny because the story of the Bridgegate scandal broke almost eight years ago, and this was a major news story in 2013. It basically ended the presidential ambitions of then new governor, Chris Christie. And in a lot of ways, it is only now just winding down from the news cycle. But also when you compare it against the political scandals of the latter 20 teens, it seems quaint in comparison.


Anthony Hayes:

Yes, it does.


Dusty Weis:

You were appointed in 2011 to fill the role of assistant director of communications and media at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Appointed by whom and how did you land in that job?


Anthony Hayes:

Yeah. So, I had been working on, I worked for the human rights campaign and met Bill Baroni, at the time a Senator in New Jersey, who then came over and was the deputy executive director appointed by Chris Christie at the port. And they actually brought me in initially as a consultant to help with the 10th anniversary of 9/11.


Anthony Hayes:

And in that time there, I was also having conversations about possibly joining, unrelated to my work at the port authority, joining the Cuomo administration in New York. So, it just so happens that after about two weeks in, was offered a permanent job there, which was, again, the assistant director of media and communications.


Anthony Hayes:

It oddly put me right in the middle of the two governors that were in the tri-state area. So, I was having conversations about joining the administration of one and then another just happened to be running the agency where I ended up working. So, I ended up working for both of those governors.


Dusty Weis:

You hint a little bit there about one of the most interesting things about the Port Authority to me, which is, okay, people hear Port Authority and they think they've got boats and they've got docks, but you mentioned 9/11. And the port authority of New York and New Jersey really oversees so much more than its name would connote.


Anthony Hayes:

Yeah. I mean, it's a giant agency here in New York that really has some of the most precious infrastructure assets really in the country. And it includes multiple crossings across the Hudson, whether that's the George Washington Bridge, various tunnels, you certainly mentioned the ports and the boats. The port authority also own the 16 acre World Trade Center site, which obviously took over and really helped in a major way really rebuilding the World Trade Center site, which was a big part of my portfolio as well while I was there.


Anthony Hayes:

They also have the bus terminal. They have their own police department. They are run by two governors. They have all the airports, LaGuardia, JFK, Newark, and it has about a $7 billion a year budget, which is larger than some states' budgets. So, it's a huge, huge agency that's in charge of really, really important infrastructure here in the Tri-State area.


Dusty Weis:

Anyone who's ever worked in communications for a government agency will tell you that it's a complex environment in which to work. But as a shared venture between New York and New Jersey, the Port Authority is particularly nuanced. And in 2013, it was that complexity that contributed to a situation in which shenanigans were able to percolate. Here's how it worked.


Dusty Weis:

Anytime you've got two massive units of government working together on a thing, you got to have some sort of power sharing agreement, right? After all, both states are contributing money that makes up the budget, so it's got to serve everyone's interests. And in the case of the Port Authority, those interests were represented by Democratic New York governor, Andrew Cuomo, and Republican New Jersey governor Chris Christie.


Dusty Weis:

The Port Authority is run by an executive director and a deputy who take their orders from a board of commissioners, which is overseen by a chair and a vice chair. And to share the power and bridge that wide gulf of partisan interests, the agreement was this: New York's governor gets to appoint the executive director and the vice chair, New Jersey's governor gets to appoint the chair and the deputy executive director.


Dusty Weis:

And while that agreement worked pretty well for many, many years, the effective results is this, thousands of non-partisan public servants, port authority employees, who take their orders from two different, very powerful, very cloistered sets of partisan appointees that aren't necessarily working toward the same goals or even talking to each other all that much.


Dusty Weis:

So, on Monday, September 9th, the first day of school in 2013, non-partisan employees on the George Washington Bridge were given an order that they had no reason to question, cut the number of lanes entering the bridge from the New Jersey City of Fort Lee from three to just one. The resulting traffic backup tied up Fort Lee commuters in hours of gridlock.


Dusty Weis:

Traffic backups spilled from the bridge itself throughout the entire city, delaying school buses and even emergency services vehicles. It was a mess, though no one knew why yet. Not even Anthony Hayes in the Port Authority communications office.


Anthony Hayes:

We would send out clips to senior leadership, I think three times a day, if I'm not mistaken. So in the morning, at noon, and in the evening. And then one of the evening, these were the clips that took place and these were the other pending requests, those kinds of notifications that communication office has sent out to people.


Anthony Hayes:

There was something in there about an inquiry from the Bergen record, if memory serves. And I didn't think much about it to be perfectly honest because I just thought the reporter was really confused. Because anytime the port does any sort of really lane closure changes to traffic flow, shutting something down, our office is really a part of notifying people, press releases, media advisories, tweeting, all of those things.


Dusty Weis:

And certainly one of the worst feelings that you can have as a professional communicator for a government body, speaking from experience here, is the realization that you have been put on an island by the bureaucrats or the elected officials who are making the decisions. That even though it's your job to communicate to the public about pressing matters of health and safety, that people higher up the chain of command, they can take actions without informing you and leave you as much in the dark as the press and the public. How did you realize that this was what had happened to you here and what were you feeling when you realized that?


Anthony Hayes:

Yeah, I think there's important context to that. The Port Authority has about 7,000 employees. The numbers may have waned since I was there, but approximately 7,000. It's thousands of employees. And so, I don't know that at that point, again, when I read that inquiry or even as things went on, I think there was just a lot of like, somewhere there's been a miscommunication. No one really thought what was being put out into the universe was possible.


Anthony Hayes:

Because out of all those thousands of people, there are some really incredible, dedicated employees who they've spent their whole careers at this agency making things like the George Washington Bridge, LaGuardia, JFK, say what you want about them as a member of the public, but nonetheless, The Port Authority engages with millions and millions of people commuting a day and does so successfully.


Anthony Hayes:

So, it's not the way the port works. And so, I just [inaudible 00:10:06] feel like a lot of the people who were aware of this, which was a smaller number of those people, we all just thought there was just a miscommunication and it's going to work itself out. But at an agency that big, you also have to understand a miscommunication like that or a bump in the road, so to speak, that's just par for the course.


Anthony Hayes:

At that time, at that level, what we're talking about, that media inquiry that I was reading, at any given time, we had 12 complicated pending media requests that we were fighting through and figuring out and clarifying. So, sometimes reporters reach out and they have an idea of what's happening, but they have no idea. And then when we say it as communicators, lay it out for them, put everything in context, share documents if that's required, then all of a sudden they realize, "Oh gosh, we really had this story wrong."


Anthony Hayes:

So, a lot of times there was a number of stories about the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey that no one ever saw, just because the reporters were getting bad information and we gave them and proved it. Right? They didn't just take our word for it. Right? We had to prove it and rightly so. But yeah, it was one of many on that particular day where I was like, "Huh, that'll get figured out."


Dusty Weis:

Somebody is going to figure out what's going on here and then we'll get it set right and everything will be communicated. And certainly it didn't strike you in the moment that this was actually a case of political mischief, people that governor Chris Christie had appointed to office and they're running around making lives difficult for these residents in a city in New Jersey on purpose?


Anthony Hayes:

Yeah. No one, no one, no one thought that of the people who read that email that I'm talking about. It just wasn't something that people thought because it's not the way we work.


Dusty Weis:

But remember the way we work for the vast majority of nonpartisan employees at the Port Authority is a separate culture from the highly partisan leadership silos. And as the week went on, the lane closures continued on the Fort Leon ramp, Fort Lee. By the way, the home of democratic mayor, Mark Sokolich, who it would later come up, had rebuffed Republican governor, Chris Christie's previous request for a campaign endorsement.


Dusty Weis:

Fort Lee continued to suffer from punishing gridlock throughout the city. On at least one occasion, paramedics in a traffic snarled-ambulance are reported to have abandoned the vehicle to respond to emergency calls on foot. The problems lasted through Friday of that week when Port Authority executive director, Patrick Foye, remember he's from the New York leadership silo appointed by governor Andrew Cuomo, Patrick Foye sent out an email contravening the orders to close the bridge lanes, following the decision to close the lanes hasty and ill-advised.


Dusty Weis:

He added the closure violated policy and long standing custom at the Port Authority, that he believed that closing the lanes may have even been a violation of the law. And for Anthony Hayes, that email served as an exclamation point in a week of creeping realization that there were probably shenanigans [crosstalk 00:13:13].


Anthony Hayes:

The communications team, I think, we were 8 or 10 people. The Tunnels, Bridges & Terminal, which is the portfolio that we're talking about at the Port Authority, that was not my portfolio, that was another person at the port. But that person and I worked very closely together. And at one point, he had come in and said, "Is this possible that this is something?" And I'm just like, "I can't imagine." Was like, "There's just somebody who's angry."


Anthony Hayes:

I think we were all just trying to understand what it was. And as it started becoming more clear, yes, I was involved in various meetings that made it clear there was a lot more than met the eye. And that was right around the time where, I think it's a widely, widely published email at this point. And God bless Pat Foye.


Dusty Weis:

The executive director of the Port Authority, appointed by Governor Cuomo.


Anthony Hayes:

Yes. Yes. Thank you. God bless Pat Foye. Sorry, I'm being too familiar. But a great guy and sent the email, and exactly the kind of email that needed to be sent. And it was exactly the kind of leadership that was needed to really undo what had turned out, again, as we all learned over time, what was really unimaginable.


Anthony Hayes:

At that point, it was just, I mean, Pat made it very clear in his email to just as soon as is safely possible, get those lanes reopened. And then from there, it just became what it became that everyone watched it become, which we just had a front row seat at.


Dusty Weis:

What it became was, by all accounts, a slow implosion. Local media continued to hound the Port Authority comms team for answers that they didn't have. And this turned out the pressure on these three big players in the New Jersey leadership silo. Bridget Anne Kelly, governor Christie's deputy chief of staff, Bill Baroni, the deputy executive director of the Port Authority, and David Wildstein, the director of interstate capital projects, another Christie appointee. These were the three that were indicted as the chief mischief makers behind the Bridgegate scandal.


Dusty Weis:

These officials in the weeks that immediately followed it, emails and text messages would later show they tried to orchestrate what I would describe it as a fairly ham-handed coverup, where they tried to write the whole thing off as a traffic study. Just from your perspective as a public relations and strategic communicator, how did that go for them?


Anthony Hayes:

Well, I think there's two things I want to... So, just to start. I do want to clarify for listeners, and I don't understand the exact thing, but I know that the U.S Supreme Court weighed in on this. And so, my understanding is, is that Bridget and Bill have been cleared. And so, I just want everybody to understand all of those nuances, because it did make it all the way to the United States Supreme Court.


Dusty Weis:

You were a witness.


Anthony Hayes:

On a witness list, yes. I think that was very early on. I don't believe so for the Supreme Court, but obviously contractually, I think any of us who were involved, and I was, had to be ready to get a call and so we all were. So, in the days that followed, yeah, I'm not entirely sure how or where the traffic study came from. I can say that certainly at that point, really things were fairly, what's the right word? Divided in the port and in a way that you had that group doing what they were doing. And then I think the rest of us were marching ahead and trying to give colleagues, I think at the time, the right, due process and benefit of the doubt.


Anthony Hayes:

But for them, I think what played out very publicly was is that not a lot of people believed there was a traffic study. I can't say whether there was or wasn't. I wasn't a part of it. I wasn't a part of a meeting, but I know that generally with traffic studies, you tend to know that they're going on.


Anthony Hayes:

I think everybody really internally was just trying to pick the pieces up, and again, I think really focus on making sure we were being transparent and everybody took it very seriously. What had happened, the level of obligation we had to make that clear to legislators and people that were investigating. And it would not have likely been my strategy, but again, maybe somehow the three of them thought there actually was something. Who can say what they were thinking?


Anthony Hayes:

Certainly I can tell you personally, the whole thing was pretty disappointing just because Bill Baroni is a good man and I still consider him a friend. I certainly don't think Bridget deserved, I think she had an offhanded quip that will live with her probably for the rest of her life over email. But I think most of all, it was disappointing because there were some really good people wrapped up in that and they certainly have paid whatever price needed to be paid.


Dusty Weis:

In spite of the traffic study deflection, the story only picked up steam. And in short order, The Wall Street Journal was reporting on it. How did your role in managing the crisis in the public perception of it change and evolve as the stories snowballed?


Anthony Hayes:

Yeah. It's a really good question. And I think it's important to make sure I make clear. I was a part of a team of people and it really was a team of communicators and at the top of the chain was a really wonderful, smart woman named Lisa McSpadden, and then a series of other people who really were trying to make the best of and provide the best guidance.


Anthony Hayes:

And I think under Lisa's leadership really, it was a very difficult time as a communicator because it was one where, as it continued to grow, not only was it press inquiries, which is one piece of it, but there were inquiries from governmental bodies wanting to understand what happened and to investigate.


Anthony Hayes:

And so, as anybody who does a lot of crisis management knows, anytime there's legal ramifications involved in communicating, it changes your tools and tactics as a communicator. There's one thing to just manage press inquiries, which of all the people that I worked with were wildly capable of either individually or as a collective whole. I think we had some of the best people that I know.


Anthony Hayes:

But it got much more complicated. It was less about, I would say over time, and I can't quantify the exact amount of time, but in the probably six to eight months that followed, Pat Foye's email, I would say that the change was really about making sure that we were all complying with all of the legal complexity that had introduced itself into all of this, as well as needing to do the best that we could to manage all of the just unimaginable amount of media inquiries around it.


Anthony Hayes:

This was one piece of a very complicated giant agency that on a good day had bad press. And I say that with love because it's just like when you're engaging with that many millions of people every day, day in, day out, planes, trains, automobiles, buses, every sort of thing you can imagine. And we had all just come out of Superstorm Sandy.


Dusty Weis:

Right. Right. You thought you had the worst of it there.


Anthony Hayes:

Yeah. I mean, we all just lived through that together and were still in the midst of trying to get the region turned back on. Our team was just managing so much complexity and Bridgegate was a piece of it. It's hard to get that across to people because I think they just, anyone assumes that when there's something that it's this big of a political crisis that involves two governors, multiple bodies of people investigating you, subpoenas, et cetera, you assume that's all you do. And it certainly had moments where it felt that way, but we were still doing our job.


Dusty Weis:

The day-to-day work doesn't go away.


Anthony Hayes:

No. The chief of police calling saying, "We've had an unfortunate incident at the George Washington Bridge. You better get up there." Or we would have all sorts of challenges with the airports, as one can imagine, where it was constantly just managing those things. And so it was very, very complicated. But it was not, and I think this is the most important thing and what was so disappointing for all those thousands and thousands of employees at the Port Authority is when you said Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, that's all anybody knows about it, but they don't realize how much incredible work goes on out of that building.


Dusty Weis:

Well, let's address that then. Because from a PR standpoint, it suffices to say that the reputation of the Port Authority took a hit in the eyes of the public as a result of this scandal, even though it was just three bureaucrats that perpetrated the whole thing.


Dusty Weis:

So, even though the vast majority of employees at the Port Authority had nothing to do with the scandal, public institutions in general take a hit as a result of something like this. How do you go about rebuilding the public trust in the wake of a scandal like this?


Anthony Hayes:

It's a good question and I would say a lot of that, this is my opinion and I think just to be clear with all your listeners, I haven't been at the Port Authority for many, many years, and I think what they have done to change the structure there, I think the way the board and the executive director and team that are working there now, I think they really have removed a lot of those abilities where something like that could happen again.


Anthony Hayes:

Obviously nothing's 100%, but I think everybody at the port should be very proud of that. So, to your question about how do you try to rebuild the public trust? I think a lot of that happened through just constant, ongoing changes and reminding people, we would go out of our way as communicators to work with press, to be like, "We get it. We get it. Bridgegate. And did you know..."


Anthony Hayes:

For instance, one of the things we did, which was one of my favorite things that I got to do when I was at the Port Authority, every 10 years, the George Washington Bridge gets painted. And so, I overheard this in a meeting and I was like, "Wait, what did you say?" And they're like, "Every 10 years, it's that time. The painters are painting the bridge."


Anthony Hayes:

And I'm like, "Oh, are they the same painters every time?" And they're like, "Yeah. Actually, they are." And I'm like, "Oh my God, we need to take someone up to meet the painters." And it's like a good community story. It's a local business, it's all those things. And I was like, "That's a great story." And I turned to Pat Foye and I was like, "We need to go up to the George Washington Bridge."


Anthony Hayes:

And he goes, "I agree." And Pat was always game to highlight all the workers that really worked there and just did so much. And so, we convinced Bob Woodruff and team to go up and we climbed down the big tube with ABC. And so, we're strapped in and walking down this thing and it was really fabulous.


Anthony Hayes:

I mean, what a cool, cool thing to be a part of. So, it was those kinds of tools and tactics as a communicator that you have to, especially something like Bridgegate where it's a sustained crisis, you really have to put it in a box and have a team that's managing that, which I was certainly a part of that team. But then there was also just a very clear like, "Okay, we're only giving this this amount of time and now what else are we doing? And what other stories can we tell out of this building?" Because there were thousands of stories.


Anthony Hayes:

I was also very lucky in that I had the pleasure of introducing the world to the World Trade Center after the attacks. And my time there was a really interesting time because the entire 16 acres had been surrounded by a fence for 10 years.


Dusty Weis:

I remember that. Yeah.


Anthony Hayes:

So, I was able to be there when we started bringing people onto the site, starting introducing architects, reporters and walking them through where you saw these designs, now there's hard infrastructure. And it's like, "Yeah, people will walk through here and then they'll go up here." And you could start to see it and feel it. At one point, I forget who wrote this, but someone in the news wrote, it's the hottest ticket in town getting behind the fence kind of thing for new Yorkers.


Anthony Hayes:

So, that was obviously for the agency just meant such a great deal. And so many people, thousands and thousands of people obviously worked on that. And so, getting to tell their stories and have the construction workers be interviewed to bring The Today Show up on top to go live when we put the final piece of Spire into the One World Trade Center was really just a once in a lifetime kind of thing.


Dusty Weis:

But even as Anthony and the comms team at the Port Authority work to restore trust in the institution, the Bridgegate scandal moved into its next phase. Investigations were launching on a state and federal level and the results painted a picture of political payback behind the lane closures.


Dusty Weis:

And Anthony Hayes was in for a bumpy ride with the remainder of his tenure at the Port Authority. While the rest of us were learning about damning document dumps, he was taking away lessons that would set the stage for the next step in his career.


Anthony Hayes:

If you don't feel comfortable having the email or text message that you're writing published in the New York Times, don't write it.


Dusty Weis:

Plus, what did the governor know and when did he know it? Anthony's candid insights on the fate of governor Chris Christie's abortive 2016 presidential campaign. That's in a minute here on Lead Balloon. This is Lead Balloon and I'm Dusty Weis. Anthony Hayes was a spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey as the infamous Bridgegate scandal of 2013 unfolded, and unfold it did.


Dusty Weis:

In the months that followed the investigations in the New Jersey legislature, an inquiry by the U.S attorney's office and even a U.S Senate investigation peeled back the scandal like the layers of an overripe onion. Leading theory is that a group of New Jersey governor Chris Christie's aides and appointees targeted Fort Lee mayor, Mark Sokolich because the Democrat had declined to endorse the Republican governor in his reelection bid.


Dusty Weis:

That's just a theory, but it's clear from the evidence that whatever the reason, they had it out for this guy, and they took it out on the whole city. On August 13th, Christie's deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, sent an email to Port Authority appointee, David Wildstein that read,


Bridget Anne Kelly:

Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.


Dusty Weis:

Wildstein then handed down the orders to close the traffic lanes, including the edict that local officials should not be notified in a blatant breach of regular protocol. And in response to messages from Fort Lee's mayor asking them to do something, do anything, about his crippling perfect problems, Kelly texted to Wildstein...


Bridget Anne Kelly:

Is it wrong that I'm smiling?


Dusty Weis:

Wildstein replied...


David Wildstein:

No.


Dusty Weis:

But then Kelly wrote...


Bridget Anne Kelly:

I feel badly about the kids, I guess.


Dusty Weis:

To which Wildstein responded.


David Wildstein:

They are the children of Buono voters.


Dusty Weis:

Referring to Barbara Buono, Christie's democratic opponent in the most recent election. The digital paper trail goes on like this, Wildstein and deputy executive director Bill Baroni, another Christie appointee, would resign their posts in December three months after the scandal broke.


Dusty Weis:

Governor Christie fired Bridget Anne Kelly a month later, and all three would eventually be prosecuted for conspiracy and fraud. Their convictions, however, would be overturned in 2020 by the Supreme Court on the grounds that the charges couldn't be upheld because there was no actual monetary benefit to them from the scheme as Justice Elena Kagan wrote, "Not every corrupt act by state or local officials is a federal crime." And Anthony Hayes was there watching as this all began to play out at the end of 2013.


Anthony Hayes:

Every time there was a document dump, we would get subpoenas for documents. So then all of a sudden, all these emails would be given to said body of government that was investigating. And then you don't know as a communicator exactly what's in those because it's thousands, and thousands, and thousands, and thousands, of pages of emails or communications.


Anthony Hayes:

And so, you find out because there's a phone call from The Journal or The Times, so you start to understand. And what someone may have thought was a one-off quick email, maybe a snide remark about a colleague just because you were having a bad day is now public consumption.


Dusty Weis:

It seems like there's a lesson in this for professional communicators and even public officials all over.


Anthony Hayes:

If you don't feel comfortable having the email or text message that you're writing published in the New York Times, don't write it. It's so easy to take a quick comment out of context. There were just emails that went around that just weren't necessarily the most flattering. It doesn't mean that there was anything wrong or illegal, it just means you may not have looked like your best self and we've all done it.


Anthony Hayes:

I probably still do it, even though I advise every single client basically don't email, but this in particular point to very clear lens at, don't email if you're not okay with people reading it.


Dusty Weis:

What I've realized from my own experience, having worked in local government for a while myself, is that this leads to very short, very dry emails and very long, very colorful phone calls because a phone call is not a public record.


Anthony Hayes:

Yes. Well, and also like everything in the phone call can be taken in context. Even the person you're emailing could get confused. Right? And so then because they got confused, all of a sudden what you guys are emailing back and forth about inadvertently could have the appearance of something that could possibly be illegal or just look really bad.


Anthony Hayes:

And it could just be over a miscommunication over email because you're both just really busy people and not paying attention to what you're writing down. And so, it really is true. I mean, I think there are many examples too. I think that certainly when you even look at what happened on Secretary Clinton's campaign in 2016, there was a bunch of emails that got hacked, and released, and all of these things. It's just very common in the world that we live in. It may not end up being a Bridgegate scenario, but it is extremely common that emails are grabbed and used.


Dusty Weis:

I've noticed that I actually tend to scare people a little bit because they'll send me an email and I'll just grab the phone and call them immediately. And there'll be like, "I just emailed you." I'm like, "I know. I wasn't going to email you back. I wanted to talk about this," and that's still spooks people.


Anthony Hayes:

It spooks the naive people. Anybody who's been around is like, "You know what, you're right. This is a better phone call." I know people are so anti-phone and we text everything now, but it just, especially to young professionals who are of a generation where that's just very commonplace, you just can't understand the impact.


Dusty Weis:

It seems like we get another reminder about once a year.


Anthony Hayes:

As a crisis communication person, I can always count on someone emailing something they shouldn't.


Dusty Weis:

Looking back at the impact of the whole thing, a lot of people had Chris Christie as a front runner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. Instead, in the wake of Bridgegate, his poll numbers plummeted, he wound up dropping out of the race after the New Hampshire primary. How directly linked are those two things, would you say?


Anthony Hayes:

Yeah. I mean, there's been tons of speculation about it, obviously. It certainly didn't help. Right? One could also just argue that really nobody was responding to Chris Christie's message in Iowa or New Hampshire. And so, that's also just a perfectly fine and logical explanation. But I think that certainly when you're in, having gone in those states a couple of times in presidentials, it is very on-the-ground. It is very retail politics.


Anthony Hayes:

And so, I am sure Bridgegate impacted those coffee shop meetings that you see, or the ice cream shop where he's popping in to grab a thing or whatever. I'm sure people were like, "Yeah, but didn't you shut down that bridge?" I'm sure those things happened, but I don't think it was the nail in the coffin, so to speak, but I think it certainly took him back from where he was in terms of being the front runner. But obviously as we saw throughout 2016, it was quite different than everyone thought.


Dusty Weis:

Right. Yeah. Well, a lot of things got pretty weird in the 2016 presidential election and that this wound up as a footnote speaks to just exactly how weird 2016 was.


Anthony Hayes:

Exactly.


Dusty Weis:

So, you don't work for the Port Authority anymore, so I can ask you one of those questions that when you worked for the Port Authority would have been an instant, "Hmm, I don't have a comment on that." governor Christie was never indicted in the whole thing. He has always tried to maintain a certain degree of plausible deniability.


Anthony Hayes:

Yeah.


Dusty Weis:

You were there. Do you think he was in on Bridgegate?


Anthony Hayes:

I would find it hard to believe, given his leadership style, that he wasn't somehow briefed.


Dusty Weis:

That was a good answer. In December of that year, Governor Christie announced the resignations of Bill Baroni and David Wildstein, and of course then things would pick up and go downhill. There were indictments, there were ultimately convictions, which were then overturned by the Supreme Court on some grounds that it's spirit of law versus letter of the law kind of stuff. And that's for people who are lawyers to debate, not me. We're just simple communicators. You already alluded you left your position at the Port Authority in the summer of 2014. Did all of this play a factor in that? What prompted your decision to pursue other opportunities?


Anthony Hayes:

Yeah. Of course, it played a factor. It was a very difficult place to work, especially in the kind of position that I was in. Our team was very, the whole communications team not just me, we were all incredibly, we lived Bridgegate day in and day out. I think a few other departments or what I hope for my colleagues in other departments is that they were able to be annoyed but get to their job. We didn't have a lot of that luxury.


Anthony Hayes:

I think we did well under the circumstances and under Lisa's leadership and certainly Pat's leadership. Yeah, it was definitely the reason that I wanted to leave, which was disappointing because really I hated and loved working there even before Bridgegate, just because as a communicator, it was really a 24/7 job and fascinating, and every day was a crisis. And I maybe should talk to a therapist about it, but I do enjoy that.


Dusty Weis:

These days you are a 40 under 40 award winner in New York, you founded The Hayes Initiative, a boutique, LGBTQ-owned and operated strategic communications firm. You've given press briefings to former presidents and secretaries of state. How did this experience at the Port Authority prepare you for that?


Anthony Hayes:

Well, when you are in, and I really can't state it heavily enough that every day at the Port Authority, we would all just look at each other and be like, "What did they say just happened at that facility?" We couldn't believe all of the things that were just constantly happening.


Anthony Hayes:

And so, you learn how to very quickly know what is important to C-suite level people, right? There's obviously in a briefing, right? It should be pretty exact level, but I just got very good at honing a message. I got very good at understanding what was the real problem that we were talking about versus the maybe the myriad of things that will come after that's easy to get spun up on in the meeting. And learned to be a lot less, and I don't mean this in a critical way, or a negative way, or automaton way, but you're just a lot less emotional about things.


Anthony Hayes:

I have a very thick skin when it comes to very uncomfortable inquiries from New York Times, Wall Street Journal, you name the major outlet. So, I think all those things really helped me fine-tune how I communicate to whomever I'm reporting to, or whomever has hired me to say what's our big problem here. Right? And create a pathway to, not just point out the problem, but come up with a recommendation in pretty quick order.


Anthony Hayes:

Because it was not uncommon at the Port Authority to get something very incredibly complex and detailed from an engineer who, bless them, have just unimaginable data in their head but it's a little bit like watching paint dry and no one understands how it applies to their life when they're taking the train. And so, I would have to decipher that within about 10 minutes and be ready to put a statement out.


Anthony Hayes:

So, you get really good at being like, "That's not important. People won't care about that." And just, I did learn a lot about what media will care about and what the public will care about. Because I think it's easy to get into group think to be like, "No, but this little widget is so important. And because of the widget, all the magic happens." And I'm like, "Yes, but the train was delayed. So the widget is broken as far as they're concerned." And they're like, "No, it's not." And I'm like, "It is."


Dusty Weis:

Explain to John Q. Public why he or she should care and will be impacted and you'll get their attention every time. If you can't do that, it's not a story.


Anthony Hayes:

Is it closed, will it affect my commute? Okay, great. I don't care.


Dusty Weis:

When we talk about Bridgegate, I have one final gripe, and that is the fact that it's a bad cliche that whenever there's a scandal, it becomes XYZ gate, Bridgegate, Pizzagate, Gamergate. There's a gate for everything now. And I'm always disappointed because this is an allegedly creative field in strategic communications, right? We're creative people, but we still come to rely on these tired, old cliches. So, if you could wave a magic wand and rebrand Bridgegate as anything better, what would you have it called?


Anthony Hayes:

Dumbest thing ever. I mean, it's hard for me because I actually, the Genesis of it obviously is Watergate, right? And so, as a political person or someone who's been involved in politics, there's something about it that I love. I wish we weren't so free to name everything a gate. I wish it had to hit a threshold. Do you know what I mean, of certain level of scandal.


Dusty Weis:

There has to be at least $5 billion worth of economic impact or somebody's political career has to end or something like that.


Anthony Hayes:

I do agree with your context that it's like, not everything is a gate. I will say that is the big lesson too that I took away was, when I'm with clients who call and they're like, "Ha. Twitter's going crazy. Have you ever seen anything like it?" And I'm just like, "What do you mean?" And they're like, "They're tweeting about the thing." And I'm like, "Well, who's tweeting?" And they're like, "Hold on. I'll send it to you. Hold on." And they'll text it while we're on the phone. I'll open it up and I'm like, "It's a tweet and he has three followers. And one of the followers is you. So, I think we're okay. This is not a scandal."


Anthony Hayes:

And so, I do think that was one skill set that I did walk away with of like, you can't be in the arena and not expect to get batted around no matter what. So, whether you're small, medium or big business, you have to be ready to get your licks, so to speak.


Dusty Weis:

Don't Have to engage with the small fries.


Anthony Hayes:

Yeah. But also, it's not if but when. Everyone will go through crisis. It will happen. Guaranteed. It may not be huge like Bridgegate, but it'll be something to you. And to you as a business owner or CEO, it may feel like the most critical thing you've ever gone through.


Dusty Weis:

I crafted a few of these, some alternate branding for Bridgegate. I wanted to bounce them off of you. I want to know what your favorite is here. What do you think about the great traffic cone caper of 2013?


Anthony Hayes:

It doesn't have dumbest thing ever in front of it, so no.


Dusty Weis:

The Hullabaloo on the Hudson?


Anthony Hayes:

Fun. I would take that.


Dusty Weis:

I think that one or the bridge and tunnel brouhaha are my two favorites.


Anthony Hayes:

Those two are strong. I would be fine with both. I think I probably would pick number two out of those.


Dusty Weis:

Well, if you start using it, everybody else has to follow suit. That's the way that it works.


Anthony Hayes:

We'll see how influential I am about that.


Dusty Weis:

Hullabaloo on the Hudson. It's decided. Anthony Hayes, founder of The Hayes Initiative, a public affairs and strategic communications firm in New York. If somebody wants to learn more about you and what you do, where can we find you?


Anthony Hayes:

You can go to our website, hayesinitiative.com or you can find me on LinkedIn Anthony Hayes.


Dusty Weis:

Well, Anthony, thank you for joining us on Lead Balloon.


Anthony Hayes:

Thank you. It was great.


Dusty Weis:

That is going to do it for this episode of Lead Balloon. If you enjoyed the show, why don't you pull up your podcast app right now and hit the share button. I know that sometimes unsolicited podcast recommendations will get you exiled to the lonely lunch table. I really hope that we're providing something of value to the PR and marketing community here, and I'd like to continue to grow it. So, tell a friend if you could, please.


Dusty Weis:

Lead Balloon is produced by Podcamp Media, where we provide branded podcast production solutions for businesses. Check out our website, podcampmedia.com. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Larry Kilgore III handled the dialogue editing on this episode. Special thanks to Jessica Brooks and Ben Killoy for the little bit of podcasts road trip voice acting that they contributed. Until the next time, folks. Thanks for listening. I'm Dusty Weis.



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