What Is Brian Williams' Best Crisis Management Strategy?
I wrote last night about the career-threatening controversy enveloping NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams (read that post here), who repeatedly told a false story about being under enemy fire while covering the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The evolution of his tale is quite damning. CNN has a good timeline of how Williams changed the story over time to put himself in the center of the action.
What’s unclear to me is whether he purposefully lied (according to the sentiment I’ve seen on Twitter, that seems to be the overwhelming judgment) or whether he had a false memory of the event. Scoff at that latter option if you wish, but the science is rather clear on how unreliable human memory is, particularly during dramatic events.
Even if that more charitable option is the operational one here, it suggests that Williams is an unreliable witness to major news events which is, by itself, enough to seriously damage his credibility.
From a crisis management standpoint, what should Williams do now?
I asked that question on Twitter last night; here’s what a few of you said:
I’m not sure a longer explanation without a meaningful punishment is sufficient. Other people think a suspension is warranted but suggest Williams could survive this incident.
And this person raises a good point that indicts other people within the news division: Where were the other journalists who knew his story was bull?
In my judgment, NBC News, which has its lead anchor telling tall tales that made him the hero of his own story, must act. They must suspend Williams (or place him on a “leave of absence”) immediately. During that time, they should examine his other reporting to make sure this fabrication is truly an isolated incident.
That suspension isn’t only the right thing to do, but it may help Williams keep his anchor job. Other stories will quickly fill the news vacuum, and his absence will take at least some of the air out of this story. Upon his return, Williams must provide a more credible explanation to viewers—one that doesn’t contain the glibness of yesterday’s insufficient on-air apology. Although that will resurrect the story and lead to more negative headlines, the second telling of the story won’t be accompanied by the same shock as yesterday’s original revelation. And either way, it’s a necessary step.
Some people are calling for his immediate resignation, and it’s possible Williams will be out. But I still view this as a survivable scandal; a damaged Brian Williams may still be preferable to NBC than an undamaged successor—although Lester Holt would be great at the job.
What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
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This is very disheartening. One does not confuse nor forget a terrible experience like that which he witnessed. He is sadly like those who have so much power they think they are above the truth and above suspicion.
NBC should definitely pull the ads commemorating Williams’ 10th anniversary because of words like ‘integrity,’ ‘humility,’ and ‘trust.’ He garners none and should step down.
Mr Phillips, a great follow up post as always.
I work with several former serving (how shall we say “distinguished”) veterans in a government agency and we “war gamed” your article around the coffee table this morning – with a few laughs.
They essentially said that the only time (when pressed AND if slightly drunk at a private memorial function for fellow veterans) they would EVER discuss such matters (combat war stories) would be in a PRIVATE setting and NEVER to the public. They have a habit of using the adage, “Those that know, DON’T talk, those that don’t know, TALK” . Anyone who has served in a close knit, military unit, hears about firefights, close calls and other war stories very quickly (there are few secrets in a military unit) and then the wider service then hears through official channels etc (or from trusted sources within that unit). Those involved have no need to embellish what they went through and seldom do. Perhaps a few laughs among close friends and war brothers (and sisters) with a mindfulness of “Whoa, how about that – that was close”. Yet they would shy away from bringing any sort of “recognition” to the event. The very thought of braying to the public, or using the event as some sort of personal leverage is anathema to them (at least in my experience). The ridicule and condemnation from their fellow veterans is enough to avoid the pitfalls of hubris – more so if lives were lost at the time.
On veterans days around the world, there is a general consensus that the further away from the action you were, the “taller” your story tends to be (if inclined to brag). If you hear of some cook or bottle washer saying they were fired out of a torpedo tube during the Gulf War, then it’s probably not so – again there are exceptions, however, again, once being through that experience, unless you are writing a book, there is a tendency to avoid grandiosing an event. I served in IRAQ and Afghanistan and I was a “desk jockey” the whole time, interrupted by regular visits to Timmy Hortons, Subway and Burger King – need I say more.
Most of the staff I work with introduce themselves as IT or clerical staff at non work social gatherings, as opposed to their “true profession”. This serves to avoid unwelcome curiosity and to be judged on ones present actions and NOT some former glory.
If Brian Williams actually went through the experience, he would realize that others would trumpet his bona fides on his behalf and not have to do it himself. In fact playing down ones achievements is best. Again that saying comes to mind – Truth is the daughter of time or “If you tell the truth it becomes a part of your past – if you lie it becomes your future…..
I really enjoyed reading this article and the great comments that followed.
To the proud former active and still active service men and women, my many thanks for your service, dedication and faith.
As unfortunate as it is, Mr. Williams told what appears to be a “tall tale” and was punished accordingly. With that said, where were all of members of the management team at NBC, GE and Comcast when Mr. Williams first started embellishing this story on other television programs?
My guess is that if Brian Williams were to get fired, most of the management team who not only made the decision regarding his six months suspension without pay, but who are also responsible for providing over-sight to e0nsure that “talent” (“stars”) tow the corporate line.
If Tom Brokaw really went to management and made it known that Brian Williams was “fibbing,” then what was their role in allowing this to happen in the first place.
What is odd about all of this is that it took a frantic Social Networking episode and a little paper (although highly respected for its JOURNALISTIC value) to call Mr. Williams on the carpet for his remarks after he has been telling this “story” for YEARS on national television.
Anyone that thinks that small groups of people are not dangerous or do not matter when it comes to public discourse is a fool.
Agreed, Mr. Williams needs to own up to what he did, apologize for his wrong doing and acknowledge all of the criticism for what it is. The American public may not appear to be forgiving, but I have a feeling that if Brian Williams is given the chance to bare his soul, so to speak, that viewers will forgive him.
But it is not only about the viewers, it is also about the NBC News Brand: The people who work with Brian Williams. How have their lives been impacted by his selfish and egotistical behavior?
Does he deserve another chance?