Free Advice To NBC News And Brian Williams
NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams announced yesterday that he would take a voluntary leave of absence from his broadcast. It’s a smart—and necessary—move that preserves the most options for both the anchor and his network.
In this post, I’ll offer NBC News and Brian Williams a few ideas about how to handle this controversy most effectively.
Advice For NBC News
By pulling himself off the air, Brian Williams has given you some breathing room. Take it. You don’t have to make any immediate decisions, and can use the next several days (probably weeks) to conduct a full investigation into Mr. Williams’s previous claims.
It’s good that you’ve named Richard Esposito, the head of the NBC investigative unit, to look into his previous reporting. But that’s an insufficient step. I know nothing about Mr. Esposito and don’t doubt that he’s an honest reporter who will work doggedly to uncover the facts. But the very fact that he’s paid by NBC News will, fairly or not, call his final results into question, particularly if they validate Mr. Williams’s previous reporting.
Therefore, in addition to your internal investigation (which has merit and should proceed), you should immediately name someone of prominence and widespread respect to run a simultaneous external investigation. A well-known reporter, media critic, academic, executive, or government expert (a former Inspector General, for example) could work.
Finally, you should release the results of both investigations publicly. There’s risk attached to that, of course, but I don’t believe it’s an inappropriately high-risk step. With outside reporters and bloggers continuing to dig up dirt, they’ll probably find many of the same things your investigators will anyway—but you will bolster your news department’s credibility by finding and revealing any shortcomings first.
Considering that the rumor mill is growing—and that Mr. Williams’s reporting from Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, and Haiti are all coming under fire (including an inconsistent story he’s told about saving a dog from a fire)—these steps are necessary to either partially restore Mr. Williams’s credibility before returning to air or demonstrating why he can’t.
Advice For Brian Williams
First, cancel your appearance on the Late Show With David Letterman, scheduled for this Thursday. Letterman can be a tough interviewer, and you’re a charming guest—so, in the perfect circumstance, I could see how an appearance would benefit you.
But your first post-crisis interview shouldn’t be held with a tough comedian—it should be held with a tough reporter who knows the details of your story inside and out and can ask the pointed questions that require direct answers. CNN’s Brian Stelter, who has done an admirable job of covering this story, might be a good choice. But you shouldn’t do the interview until the shock of the past few days has receded a bit; you, probably more than most, understand how public figures in the middle of crisis too often respond with a defensive tone that serves them badly.
And since you’ve been accused of spending too much of your time building your entertainment brand by hosting Saturday Night Live and slow-jamming the news with Jimmy Fallon (among many other appearances), this would send a message that your critics are right.
(Update: Shortly after this post went live, I learned that Williams canceled his Letterman appearance late this afternoon.)
Second, you’ll need to think about exactly what you would say. That you “conflated” your experiences and misremembered the events on an Iraqi helicopter was met with widespread derision. Even if you accidentally misremembered, it calls your ability to serve as an anchor into question—why should viewers trust someone whose memory of first person events is unreliable? You’ll need to dig deeper. Did you feel the need to exaggerate stories to bolster your credibility, popularity, or news bona fides? If so, you’ll need to cop to that in direct and unsparing terms—and announce specific steps you’d take to avoid that in the future.
Third, slow down. Your statement said that you would “take myself off of my daily broadcast for the next several days,” but also presumed that you would make an inevitable and probably rapid return. That’s a mistake. If you’re innocent of pervasive résumé-inflation (beyond the Iraq RPG story), time is on your side. Allow the results of an internal and external investigation to come in, vindicating your integrity, and come back to the newscast strengthened—at least in relation to your current position.
Fourth, adding more humility to your tone would go a long way. Your on-air apology on Wednesday—deemed insufficient by many—bordered on glib. And I wasn’t crazy about the statement you released on Saturday:
“In the midst of a career spent covering and consuming news, it has become painfully apparent to me that I am presently too much a part of the news, due to my actions.
As Managing Editor of NBC Nightly News, I have decided to take myself off of my daily broadcast for the next several days, and Lester Holt has kindly agreed to sit in for me to allow us to adequately deal with this issue. Upon my return, I will continue my career-long effort to be worthy of the trust of those who place their trust in us.”
Your statement used vague, distancing language: “Due to my actions” didn’t admit to anything specific, nor was there any apology attached to it. Second, calling it “my broadcast” seemed unnecessarily possessive and heavy handed. I’m sure NBC views Nightly News as its broadcast—and the journalists who work for you probably think of the broadcast as a collective effort. Finally, as discussed above, “upon my return” is not fait accompli. If an investigation finds other instances of inaccurate reporting, you’re probably gone.
Finally, I’d recommend that you hire an experienced crisis management firm, stat. Your career is at risk, and it’s normal to feel defensive, angry, and disoriented. So don’t rely solely on your own instincts. Professionals who understand today’s media climate, the evolution of crisis, and who have helped public figures facing severe reputational risk can help you navigate this crisis with better precision. Perhaps you’re already working with such counsel; if so, that’s good.
READERS: What have I missed? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.