The YouTube Governor, Decoded

Matt Katz | January 21, 2015 | Katz on Christie

Any day now, Gov. Chris Christie is expected to formally announce that he’s exploring a presidential run. In six years he has gone from a relatively unknown US Attorney in New Jersey to a household name around the country. He did it by running a sophisticated media operation that capitalized on his charm, temper and ability to step past the reporters who cover him. Here’s a breakdown of how he built his brand:

1) YouTube 

Christie was the first governor — maybe the first American politician — to use the medium of YouTube as a primary means of communicating with the public. It effectively began with a video of this response to an elementary school teacher who challenged him at a town hall meeting in 2010: “If what you want to do is giggle and put on a show every time I talk, then I have no interest in answering your question.” At nearly 1.4 million views, this is still Christie’s most popular video on his official gubernatorial YouTube channel.

The Christie communications team realized they had a politician with a tongue perfectly suited for the YouTube age. He formed a social media team that shoots, directs and cuts tape from every speech, press conference and late-night TV interview, providing almost daily content.

2) Humor

The YouTube videos are intended to accentuate the parts of Christie’s personality that have captured the American political imagination. Like the time he deflected a question about the closure of a factory owned by Hostess, which makes Twinkies. “You think you’re getting me behind this microphone having me talk about Twinkies?” he asked. “This is a set up man, I know it. You people are the worst.”

Or the way he aggressively communicates with his constituents, like when he famously asked them to evacuate before a hurricane by saying “Get the hell off the beach.”

3) Packaging

It’s not just about shooting video soundbites. The governor’s office packages the raw material into slick productions, like mock movie trailers:

And Best Of highlight reels, like this one marking his YouTube channel’s five millionth view on YouTube:

There’s also this spoof starring then-Newark Mayor Cory Booker, which now has the second most views on Christie’s channel:

4) Dissemination

The distribution of these videos is a key to their popularity. The list of reporters who receive the governor’s press releases and YouTube links was a state secret for 4 1/2 years. WNYC finally sued after several records requests were denied for various reasons. As part of the settlement agreement I was able to view the list in the governor’s office. It contained email addresses for about 2,500 journalists and TV producers who get the governor’s videos in their inboxes before reporters like me can even file our stories. The list revealed how Christie runs his own news operation, producing clips ready-made for cable TV news and thrilling the likes of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” crew, as documented here.

“How many times can we tell Chris Christie we love him?”Joe Scarborough asked after playing a YouTube clip on the show in 2010.

The list of of 2,500 includes traditional and conservative media, and is broken into various tiers: National columnists, Sunday show producers and Spanish language outlets. The cable news bookers are differentiated by show, including the time slot for each. FOX News had the most of any outlet, at 88 contacts. And there’s a “push list” for those who can disseminate videos to vast audiences immediately, like Mike Allen, who writes the early-morning Playbook on Politico, and reporters active on Twitter.

5) Strategy

Maria Comella, the 33-year-old deputy chief of staff for communications, is a veteran of New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s presidential campaign who has been with the governor since he first ran in 2009. She has become Christie’s most important governmental aide, associates say, reflecting the central role of communications in Christie’s operation. Her office is directly across from his, and no single person has been more involved in shaping the image, controlling the message and building the brand than Comella. She travels as part of his entourage on political trips around the country, overseeing the media strategy across both his Statehouse office and his fledgling presidential campaign. 

Comella’s staff of about 10 is twice the size of the communications team under former Gov. Jon Corzine, in part because of its robust social media operation. Comella gives her staff goals on increasing Christie’s Twitter followers and Facebook likes, and last week, her office put out a press release with stats on Christie’s social media activity. That irked Democrats in the Legislature like Senator Loretta Weinberg, who held the press release at a news conference, flummoxed about how government staffers compiled this as part of their official duties.

6) Message Control

Team Christie floods the media with positive, funny and even shocking Christie videos while unpopular positions, like a veto of gun regulations and taxpayer costs for the Bridgegate affair, are released on Friday evenings when few are paying attention. Policy announcements are delivered at press conferences before back-up information is sent to reporters, making it impossible to study up and ask probing questions. Public record requests are regularly denied — costing the administration hundreds of thousands of dollars in opposition legal fees after losing lawsuits. And email queries to press secretaries are ignored so often the phenomenon has become something of a joke in the press corps.

The governor’s staff even enforces an unspoken discipline. Reporters who do something to anger the governor are put in what is known as the Penalty Box, and calls, texts and emails are not returned.

7) Choosing Audiences

Over the last several months, as the governor has kept a low-profile in advance of an expected presidential announcement, Christie hasn’t held press conferences for local media.  Instead he conducted friendly interviews on call-in radio shows. At other times during his term, Christie has followed up major New Jersey speeches with national TV interviews, thereby using his state position to build a national profile.

8) Wooing National Media

Christie caused a minor Statehouse kerfuffle last week when he held an hour-long, off-the-record session with national reporters before his State of the State speech. Statehouse reporters who cover Christie weren’t allowed in. This had the effect of increasing national coverage of the speech. One national reporter told me that the off-the-record access was an incentive to come to Trenton and report on the governor’s address.

Likewise, his team often leaks news to national publications before alerting the local press. National reporters give scoops better play. So when The New York Times was told in advance that Christie planned an official trip to Mexico, the result was a front-page piece about how he’s reaching out to Latino voters. And when Christie made a visit to a football game at Camden High School, he didn’t put the stop on his public schedule — but he brought along a political reporter from The Washington Post. The resulting article helped to build the brand Christie was pushing — of an unconventional Republican reaching out to minorities in the inner city.

His social media team was there, too, of course. Heartwarming clips of Christie surrounded by Camden football players were then spliced together with a speech he gave about unity. It looked and sounded like a campaign commercial — for president of the United States.