Archive for the ‘Crisis Communications’ Category
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.
Tags: Brian Williams, crisis communications, NBC News
Posted in Crisis Communications | 6 Comments »
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.
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.
Tags: Brian Williams, crisis communications, journalism, media analysis, NBC News
Posted in Crisis Communications | 4 Comments »
I like NBC Nightly News Anchor Brian Williams. My wife and I DVR his nightly newscast and, on nights we can find the time, we watch at least the “A block” of his newscast. So it’s entirely possible that my favorable feelings toward Mr. Williams are coloring my perspective on a story that emerged late today about a major event he got wrong.
For several years, Williams has been telling a story about being in a helicopter that was shot down while covering the invasion of Iraq in 2003. But the story wasn’t true. According to Stars and Stripes:
“NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams admitted Wednesday he was not aboard a helicopter hit and forced down by RPG fire during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, a false claim that has been repeated by the network for years.”
This afternoon, after being challenged online by several soldiers who were on that plane, Williams admitted in a Facebook post (transcribed by The Wrap) that he misremembered the story:
“To Joseph, Lance, Jonathan, Pate, Michael and all those who have posted: You are absolutely right and I was wrong. In fact, I spent much of the weekend thinking I’d gone crazy. I feel terrible about making this mistake, especially since I found my OWN WRITING about the incident from back in ’08, and I was indeed on the Chinook behind the bird that took the RPG in the tail housing just above the ramp. Because I have no desire to fictionalize my experience (we all saw it happened the first time) and no need to dramatize events as they actually happened, I think the constant viewing of the video showing us inspecting the impact area — and the fog of memory over 12 years — made me conflate the two, and I apologize. I certainly remember the armored mech platoon, meeting Capt. Eric Nye and of course Tim Terpak. Shortly after they arrived, so did the Orange Crush sandstorm, making virtually all outdoor functions impossible. I honestly don’t remember which of the three choppers Gen. Downing and I slept in, but we spent two nights on the stowable web bench seats in one of the three birds. Later in the invasion when Gen. Downing and I reached Baghdad, I remember searching the parade grounds for Tim’s Bradley to no avail. My attempt to pay tribute to CSM Terpak was to honor his 23+ years in service to our nation, and it had been 12 years since I saw him. The ultimate irony is: In writing up the synopsis of the 2 nights and 3 days I spent with him in the desert, I managed to switch aircraft. Nobody’s trying to steal anyone’s valor. Quite the contrary: I was and remain a civilian journalist covering the stories of those who volunteered for duty. This was simply an attempt to thank Tim, our military and Veterans everywhere — those who have served while I did not.”
He also offered a rather glib apology tonight on NBC Nightly News:
Many people on Twitter are questioning how anyone—much less a news anchor—could somehow confuse being shot at. I understand where they’re coming from. But memory is notoriously unreliable, and as difficult as it might be to believe, it’s at least possible that Williams is telling the truth.
According to Dr. John Medina, the author of Brain Rules:
“Our brains give us only an approximate view of reality, because they mix new knowledge with past memories and store them together as one.”
Therefore, there are two possibilities here: That his was an honest error, or that he’s a liar. I’d very much like to believe that it’s the former, and that possibility shouldn’t be immediately dismissed. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
But I wouldn’t stop there. I’ve learned through the years that people who make up stories are usually repeat offenders. Therefore, NBC News has an obligation to review any other similar stories Mr. Williams has told about his past and determine their accuracy. Williams should welcome such a review—if he’s telling the truth, such a review would only serve to enhance his credibility and help confirm his explanation.
Either way, this incident is a devastating blow to his credibility—regardless of how it happened, he blew the story. And, as the tweet below (and many more like it) shows, he’s become a target of mockery.
This reputational crisis isn’t likely to end immediately. Journalists and bloggers are already picking over the details of how Mr. Williams has told this story in the past (The Poynter Institute and The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple have already posted excellent articles.) In the meantime, the pressure on NBC to take some type of meaningful disciplinary action against their lead anchor will be tremendous.
UPDATE: February 4, 2015, 9:05pm
A reader pointed out that Brian Williams seemed quite comfortable telling his false story on The Late Show With David Letterman. Even if his recollection of this story was due to a “false memory,” this will serve as a huge hit to his credibility. For balance, though, it’s also worth reading this article in The New Yorker, which shows how faulty human memory can be, especially during dramatic events.
NEW: Don’t miss my follow-up post, “What Is Brian Williams’ Best Crisis Management Strategy?“
Tags: Brian Williams, crisis communications, media analysis
Posted in Crisis Communications | 10 Comments »
Late last week, New England Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick and Quarterback Tom Brady (below) tried to take the air out of accusations that they had intentionally deflated game balls during their AFC Championship Game win.
Unfortunately, it looked as if the Patriots’ PR staff didn’t consider the background those two spokespersons would be standing in front of while denying the charge. As both men spoke, an advertisement for Gillette’s “Flexball” razor served as their backdrop, an unfortunate coincidence noted by thousands of people on social media.
(There are two other possible explanations—one, the Patriots were under a legal obligation to use that background, and two, Gillette willingly took the risk to be associated with this controversy in return for the additional exposure.)
The Patriots are far from alone in using an ill-considered background. In 2010, for example, MSNBC President Phil Griffin announced his network’s new branding strategy in a self-produced video—while CNN played in the background.
Last year, the former U.S. ambassador to Poland, Lee Feinstein, gave an interview to the BBC with what looked to be a sloppy dorm room behind him. I dubbed this “the worst webcam background I’ve ever seen.”
And in one of my all-time favorite clips that readers of this blog have seen before, then-Alaska Governor Sarah Palin pardoned a Thanksgiving turkey—while turkeys were being slaughtered behind her.
I gave some advice about choosing the right background in my book, The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need To Know Before Your Next Interview:
“Company representatives might stand on a bustling factory floor to show their business’s vitality. Marine biologists might remove their shoes and deliver an interview from the water’s edge. A health expert discussing the seriousness of diabetes might choose to do an interview from a local hospital’s emergency room.
Your background is even more important during a crisis. As a general rule of thumb, don’t display your logo during a crisis. Why help the audience remember that your brand is associated with bad news? That means you shouldn’t stand in front of any signs, buildings, or awnings that feature your company’s symbol. Also avoid wearing any clothing, caps, or pins that bear your company’s name.”
It’s easy to understand how these things happen: We become so fixated on the messages we want to deliver that we too often forget about the optics. So before your next interview, take a quick glance around you to make sure nothing in the background could conflict with your message.
Tags: Bill Belichick, Deflategate, media training tips, press conference, sports, Tom Brady
Posted in Crisis Communications | Please Comment »
Melissa Agnes is one of my favorite crisis communications professionals in the business, so I was thrilled to be invited as her guest on her excellent podcast.
Our conversation lasted for an hour—but she kept it fast moving, full of useful information and fun. Among other topics, we discussed the following (as summarized on Melissa’s site):
- What makes a good spokesperson for crisis communication
- The real-time news cycle and how it impacts in a crisis
- Tips for making communications “social media friendly”
- Biggest mistakes spokespeople make in crisis – and how you can avoid them
- How to save a client or brand who has already stuck their foot in their mouth
If you’re unable to sit and listen for the full hour, you might consider downloading the podcast and listening to it during your commute. You’ll find a particularly energetic “lightning round” at the end. And while you’re at it, subscribe to Melissa’s podcast—she’s really good, and you’ll learn a lot.
Tags: crisis communications, Crisis communications podcast, Melissa Agnes
Posted in Crisis Communications | 1 Comment »
This is a guest post by Ted Flitton, a public relations professional working in the banking industry. He is also the owner of T Communications. He lives in Calgary, Alberta.
I take no comfort in the escalating tensions between the U.S. and North Korea stemming from the hack attack on Sony Pictures, which resulted in the unauthorized release of sensitive information, reams of personal emails, and movie scripts. This crime has been described as one of the worst cases of cyber-hacking against an American company ever.
But at least now the story appears to be refocusing on the central issue of cybercrime.
Since late November, much of the media and public chose to focus on a different issue—illegally obtained leaked information—and demonized a Sony executive and a Hollywood bigwig who dished on celebrities and engaged in inappropriate racially-tinged banter. Both eventually issued apologies as people called for their heads.
Why is Sony the bad guy here? Why did so much of the public choose to attack a company which itself was a victim of a crime?
Call it schadenfreude, a “fat cat backlash,” hating the one percenters; there’s no snazzy title. But it’s clear society often shows a warped sense of morality when large organizations face crises. This misplaced outrage makes it hard for issues managers to gain control of the story and preserve corporate reputation.
Take Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice. Video from a hotel elevator showed him knocking his then-fiancée unconscious with a single punch. People quibbled over his then-two-game suspension while demanding the commissioner of the National Football League be fired for mishandling the situation. There appeared to be fewer appeals for Rice to lose his job than the Commissioner, although eventually the Ravens did let him go. Clearly, to the sporting public, lax leadership is a sin greater than domestic abuse.
Don’t get me wrong. Both the NFL and Sony deserve harsh criticism for their actions (or inactions). Some level of the outrage is warranted when companies allow bad situations to fester. But the issue is balance. Let’s be outraged by criminal acts while we wring our hands over failed leadership or executive arrogance.
More important, let’s use these incidents to spur crucial social change. The Rice incident made the important subject of domestic violence part of a national conversation, but sadly, only for a few days.
Public relations practitioners need to preserve corporate reputations. But we can and must shape important societal conversations where possible. So how can we guard against the fat cat backlash and maintain balance in emerging issues? A few thoughts:
- 1. Be prepared for the inevitable. Technology experts say corporations should expect they will be victimized by cyberthieves. All entities that collect and store the personal information of customers or employees need to do a better job of protecting this information and planning for disasters.
- 2. Take responsibility. The NFL rewards men for tough, physical play. This aggression should cease the moment the whistle blows, yet until recently, the league has been reluctant to admit that some men may have trouble differentiating between the locker room and the bedroom. Players do receive some domestic assault education, but many women say it’s not enough. The league should show leadership and really help families.
- 3. Form thoughtful, pro-active and all-embracing partnerships. The NFL is proud to help women fight breast cancer by partnering with Susan G. Komen for the Cure. The league recently launched an anti-domestic abuse campaign. That’s a positive move, but considering that pro sports leagues are largely built on the selfless contributions of mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters and wives, surely, these multi-billion dollar businesses can do more to truly honor all women.
- 4. Conduct company audits and address gaps. Rice’s two-game suspension rankled another player who received a stiffer punishment for off-season marijuana use. Imagine the goodwill generated had the NFL spotted this injustice and quietly worked to rectify it before the Rice incident.
- 5. Empower employees. Build a respectful corporate culture. Colleagues who admonish others for poisonous workplace behavior and blue chatter should be praised.
- 6. Generate goodwill. Thank supporters and engage with detractors. Return reporters’ calls and help them report stories, even if they are negative.
Taken together, these actions can help a company embroiled in full on crisis, but I fear in an age of uberoutrage their help is marginal. I turn this over to you, faithful readers of the Mr. Media Training blog. Have you experienced the fat cat backlash? How have you regained narrative balance during a corporate storm?
Ted Flitton is a public relations professional working in the banking industry. He is also the owner of T Communications. He lives in Calgary, Alberta.
Tags: crisis communications, crisis management, guest posts, hacking, nfl, PR, Public Relations, Ray Rice, Roger Goodell, Sony, Ted Flitton
Posted in Crisis Communications | Please Comment »
William Davis, a writer for the American Nuclear Society and a friend of this blog, recently sent me an article he had written about the huge difference one word can make.
His article focuses on an unremarkable incident that occurred at a nuclear plant in Ukraine late last month. He writes that the event was little more than a “fault in electrical transmission equipment,” which is common “in the world of power generating equipment anywhere, no matter the power source.”
The real problem occurred when Ukraine’s Premier dubbed this minor incident an “accident.”
The term ‘nuclear accident,’ so still burned into the minds of so many after Chernobyl and Fukushima, refers to a very serious event. An event that compromises all the layered, defense-in-depth levels of safety protecting nuclear materials from reaching the environment.
In the case of the Ukrainian Nuclear Power Plant, Zaporizhia Unit 3, no such event occurred and was never approached.”
The Premier’s use of the wrong word, “accident,” led to terrifying but untrue international headlines and even affected Ukraine’s bond market. William’s post is a perfect example of how an ill-chosen word can magnify—or even create—a crisis.
A Similar Example From A Recent Training
We recently conducted a crisis communications drill related to foodborne illness. The scenario began with a report that six employees, all of whom had attended the same catered event, reported to the facility’s health center with complaints of nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
We ran this scenario with different groups of trainees several times, and we saw the same mistake during the practice press conferences each time: Every spokesperson referred to this as an “outbreak.”
“Outbreak” is a scary word, especially when it is applied to a foodborne illness that might be the result of an intentional act. Simply saying that word during a press conference would give the media an easy hook—”An outbreak of unknown origin!” —and the facts up to that point didn’t justify such heightened language.
Other trainees in this drill used the word “situation,” which also suggested a degree of seriousness (perhaps even foul play) that was unjustified by the scenario. Those words—”situation,” “outbreak,” “event,” even “incident”—would only serve to make the established facts sound more severe.
What should the spokespersons have done? They should have simply stuck to the facts:
“What we know is that 1,000 people attended an event and that six of them have checked into a local hospital with symptoms of nausea and gastrointestinal distress. They are being cared for and are expected to make a full recovery. We do not know whether a food item might have been the source of this illness, but we are asking anyone else who attended the event and feels similar symptoms to call us at 312-555-5555.”
Don’t miss a thing! Click here to instantly join our mailing list and receive the best of the blog twice each month.
Tags: crisis communications
Posted in Crisis Communications | 1 Comment »
“For the first time since the end of the Cold War in the 1990s, the Army is shrinking.” So begins a recent New York Times article that profiles several officers who had planned on remaining with the Army for their entire careers but are being pushed out years earlier than expected due to budget cuts.
According to the Times, close to 1,200 captains and 550 majors will soon be out of work, with additional layoffs scheduled next year. And the choices about which officers will remain with the Army—and which will not—are raising some eyebrows:
“Many are being pushed out despite having good records. When the Army announced the impending officer cuts a year ago, officials said they would target officers with evidence of poor performance or misconduct.
But an internal Army briefing disclosed by a military website in September showed the majority of captains being forced out had no blemishes on their records. The briefing, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times, also showed that officers who had joined the Army as enlisted soldiers, then endured the demanding process required to rise into the officer corps, were three times as likely as captains who graduated from West Point to be forced to retire.”
The officers’ stories are full of hardship. Some are receiving dramatically smaller pensions than they expected, others are flirting with bankruptcy, and many are feeling a sense of loss and betrayal. In response, the Army issued a statement that failed to match or acknowledge the emotion of these stories. Worse, it appeared to slight the officers who had been let go:
“Selections for separation are based on a soldier’s manner of performance relative to their peers while serving as a commissioned officer,” Lt. Col. Benjamin Garrett, an Army spokesman, said in an email. “The boards retained those with the highest demonstrated levels of performance and the most potential for future contributions on active duty.”
Ouch. I’m sure the men and women who served were thrilled to see their work dismissed in such cold terms.
This statement suffers from the same problem as the one I highlighted last week regarding the medical center that treated Joan Rivers: It’s bereft of humanity.
In fairness, it’s entirely possible that Lt. Col. Garrett’s full statement contained more human language, but was cut from the story by the reporter. Even if that’s the case, this quote highlights the need to only send a reporter a short quote that can’t be easily edited down. As an example, this quote would have avoided the problem of sounding unnecessarily harsh:
“Dismissing an officer for budgetary reasons is always an excruciating decision. Although we made selections for separation based on a soldier’s manner of performance, many well-qualified and decorated officers are not being retained. We honor their service and are fully committed to easing their transitions to post-military life.”
Since this is the second time I’ve written about this topic in as many weeks, I’ll propose a new rule: When drafting a crisis statement, always remember that you’re just a person, talking to another person.
A grateful h/t to presentation coach Gary Genard, who tweets at @GaryGenard.
I often tweet about stories that don’t appear on the blog. Join me! I’m at @MrMediaTraining.
Tags: crisis communications, layoffs, U.S. Army
Posted in Crisis Communications | Please Comment »