How Juan Williams Can Win the NPR PR Crisis

Last week, NPR Analyst Juan Williams made comments about Muslims that led to his dismissal from the radio network. In an appearance on the Fox News Channel, Mr. Williams said:

“I mean, look, Bill, I’m not a bigot. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.”

Mr. Williams joins a long line of journalists who have been fired over the past year due for making comments perceived as insensitive, including CNN’s Rick Sanchez and Octavia Nasr, and Hearst’s Helen Thomas.

But unlike those cases, Williams is winning the PR war against his former employer. Conservatives are predictably blasting the left-leaning network, but even liberal commentators such as PBS’s Mark Shields and CNN’s Eliot Spitzer say NPR made a bad call in dismissing Williams.

Mr. Williams is understandably angry about the manner in which his long-time employer fired him (NPR refused to meet with him in-person and canned him by phone). A gratuitous comment made by NPR CEO Vivian Schiller that he should see a psychiatrist rubbed further salt into a fresh wound.

As you’ll see in the below clip, Mr. Williams is furious:

My advice to Mr. Williams is to cool down. He’s already winning the PR war – all he has to do now is let NPR take the heat. He should display grace instead of anger during this especially difficult moment in his career. By doing so, he can make NPR look even more unreasonable while using the crisis to enhance his own reputation. He should look to the example set by Conan O’Brien, whose grace under pressure after his own dismissal widened his fan base while making NBC executives look callous.

NPR has a tougher PR battle ahead. Congressional conservatives are already introducing legislation to strip NPR of public financing, and few think they handled the firing well.

Whether or not Williams’ firing was justified is debatable. What’s not debatable is that NPR handed its conservative opponents – who have come to appreciate Williams’ work on the Fox News Channel – buckets of ammunition by treating Williams so badly.

NPR should begin by immediately issuing an unqualified apology to Mr. Williams about mangling his firing and admitting the network’s editorial rules that led to his dismissal have been unevenly enforced.

NPR might even offer Williams his job back. Mr. Williams is unlikely to accept (he’s accepted a contract with Fox News worth $2 million over three years), but it would likely take some of the air out of the effort to eliminate NPR’s public financing.