BOB: Any day now New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is expected to formally announce he’s exploring a presidential run. In five years he has gone from being a relatively unknown US Attorney to being a national household name, and he did it by running a nimble media operation that capitalized on his charm, temper, and ability to step past, or on, the reporters who cover him -- like Matt Katz of New Jersey Public Radio.
KATZ: This movie trailer was prepared inside the New Jersey statehouse
VOICEOVER: This summer, from the makers of ...
CHRISTIE: Together we've begun to clean up the mess of the past...
KATZ: The trailer was emailed to thousands of reporters and TV producers around the country.
VOICEOVER: How far would you go?
CHRISTIE: There is no other way to fix a severe problem like this but with pain...
KATZ: It was posted on Twitter, and hashtags #No Pain No Gain. And as much it sounded like a movie trailer...
VOICE OVER: Hang on to your seats.
KATZ: This was actually a video teasing Governor Christie's town hall meetings on pension reform.
CHRISTIE: Pensions, health benefits, and debt service.
KATZ: This is how you build a politician’s brand. Chris Christie is the first YouTube governor. His communications team releases almost daily videos of him joking around and yelling at reporters, talking passionately about his mother, or wagging his finger at liberals. Much of his celebrity can be traced back to a town hall meeting in 2010, when he took on an elementary school teacher.
CHRISTIE: Well, listen, let's start with this: I sat here, stood here and very respectfully listened to you. If what you want to do is put on a show and giggle every time I talk, well then I have no interest in answering your question.
KATZ: The video got more than one million YouTube views. A social media unite was created in the governor's office. They now shoot, direct, and cut tape from every speech, press conference, and late night TV interview. The videos accentuate the parts of his 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.
CHRISTIE: You think you get me behind this microphone having me talk about Twinkies? This is a set up, man. I know it. You people are the worst.
KATZ: To mark his 5 millionth view on YouTube, his team packaged highlights of his sound bytes into a best of video.
CHRISTIE: The one thing you won't be able to say at the end of this four years is that you didn't know me.
CHRISTIE: I got sent here to do a job, I didn't get sent here to be elected prom king.
CHRISTIE: Get me out of the cage and let me go!
CHRISTIE: I have something better to do, I have to rearrange my sock drawer tonight.
KATZ: But it's not just the entertaining videos. It's also their distribution. The list of reporters who receive Christie's emails was a state secret for four and a half years. WNYC finally sued after several open public records requests were denied. As part of the settlement agreement, I was able to view the list in the governor's office of communications. What I saw was email addresses for about 2500 journalists and TV producers who get these YouTube links in their inboxes before reporters like me can even file our stories. It shows how Christie runs his own news operation, producing clips ready-made for cable TV news, like Morning Joe on MSNBC.
SCARBOROUGH: How many times can we tell Chris Christie we love him?
BRZEZINSKI: I also just, um -- I think we should watch him! I'm serious!
SCARBOROUGH: He is so Jersey in every great way.
KATZ: No single person has been more involved in shaping Christie's brand than Maria Comella. Associates say that the deputy chief of staff for communications has become the most important governmental aide to Christie. She sits directly across from his office. She's rarely in front of the cameras, but she made an appearance on the governor's second most watched YouTube video: a spoof on Christie competing with then Newark Mayor Corey Booker. In the spoof, she mocks Christie's own YouTube-centric media operation.
COMELLA: You know, seriously, I think we're tapped out. I mean, there's only so many frickin' web videos we can do.
KATZ: Comella has doubled the communications staff; it's about twice that of Christie's predecessor. She gives her staff goals on increasing Christie's twitter followers and Facebook likes. Last week the office put out a press release with stats on their social media success. That irked Democrats in the legislature, like Senator Loretta Weinberg.
WEINBERG: Ahead of unemployment in the state, are the numbers of views that he's gotten on YouTube.The numbers of likes he's gotten on his Facebook. And the number of tweets he's sent out to x number of followers.
KATZ: Weinberg says it's amusing that the governor sees his social media numbers as an achievement, when there are so many pressing issues facing the state.
WEINBERG: Those are buried among a list of about our educational system, our unemployment rate, and the various other problems we have to face in New Jersey.
KATZ: Now Christie is taking the brand national. One signal of that was 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. A national reporter told me that the access was an incentive to come to Trenton and cover the actual speech. It appeared to work. Here's Dana Bash from CNN:
BASH: I just want to stop for a second and talk about how incredibly different this is. I mean, here we are, standing right on the floor of the general assembly. You can't do this in Washington.
KATZ: His team often leaks news to national publications before alerting the local press. That's because national reporters want scoops, so the best way to get them to cover something is to offer exclusives. For example, the New York TImes was told in advance that Christie planned an official trip to Mexico, yielding 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, which would have alerted the rest of the press corps. Instead, he gave a political reporter from the Washington Post exclusive access. The resulting article helped to build the brand Christie was pushing: of an unconventional Republican reaching out to minorities in the inner city.
CHRISTIE: Got me a little nervous tonight, but you guys came through and you played hard, way to go. Good win, good win.
KATZ: The social media team was there, too. Heartwarming clips of Christie surrounded by Camden football players were then spliced together with a speech he had given about unity.
CHRISTIE: The ways we divide each other--by race, by class, by ethnicity, by wealth, and yes, by political party--is neither permanent, nor necessary.
KATZ: It looks and sounds like the next stage of the Christie brand is about to launch: presidential candidate.
CHRISTIE: We have to be willing to play outside the red and blue boxes that the media pundits put us in.
BOB: Matt Katz has a new weekly podcast. It’s called The Christie Tracker and it’s available at WNYC.org, or you can subscribe to it on iTunes.