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.
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.
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?“
Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), a possible 2016 presidential candidate, gave an interview to CNBC yesterday that may eliminate his chances of winning the Republican nomination before his campaign even gets under way.
Much of the media coverage about the interview focused on Paul’s dangerous insistence that vaccines should remain voluntary because of “freedom.” But another part of the interview is the focus of this post. And every male presidential candidate—particularly the Republican nominee who will almost certainly be male and will almost certainly face Hillary Clinton—should watch it to avoid making the same mistake.
During his interview with CNBC’s Kelly Evans, Paul “shushed” Ms. Evans, told her to be “quiet” and “calm down a bit,” and interrupted her before she could “get going” again.
The questions Ms. Evans asked weren’t unusual—it was Paul who reacted peevishly and created a controversy where none existed. He had the right to refute premises he thought were incorrect, of course, but acted surprised by questions that could have been swatted away with ease.
The interview below is an edited “highlights” clip; you can watch the full exchange, which is worth watching, here.
But there’s another key issue here: Gender. That Mr. Paul is man and Ms. Evans is a woman changes the political calculus for interviews such as this one. Male politicians who are viewed as condescending to women often pay a political price for their dismissiveness, as the four examples below show.
1. Hillary Clinton vs. Barack Obama (2008)
After winning the Iowa caucus, Senator Barack Obama was widely expected to win the pivotal New Hampshire primary and cruise to an easy nomination. But after taking a gratuitous swipe at Senator Clinton’s likeability in a debate held just days before the vote, female voters handed Ms. Clinton an unexpected victory, helping to extend her campaign for months.
2. Hillary Clinton vs. Rick Lazio (2000)
During a New York Senate debate, Republican candidate Rick Lazio approached Ms. Clinton’s lectern aggressively. He handed her a paper pledge to refuse any soft money to the campaign – but the move was widely seen as inappropriate and boorish. Mr. Lazio lost the once-close race by double digits.
3. Geraldine Ferraro vs. George H.W. Bush (1984)
During the Vice Presidential debate, Vice President Bush took a patronizing tone with Rep. Ferraro when discussing foreign policy. Ms. Ferraro used her razor sharp tongue to let him know she didn’t appreciate it, earning her the applause of the audience and him the enmity of many opinion writers. In the end, it didn’t matter – Mr. Bush was part of a winning ticket that won 49 states.
4. Scott Brown vs. Elizabeth Warren (2011)
Then-Senator Scott Brown (R-MA) fell into a predictable gender trap when he slammed Elizabeth Warren’s figure. As background, in 1982, Mr. Brown posed nude for Cosmopolitan Magazine. During a Democratic primary debate, Warren was asked how she paid for college, given that Mr. Brown stripped to pay his tuition.
“I kept my clothes on,” Ms. Warren quipped, to the delight of the audience.
During a radio interview shortly thereafter, Sen. Brown responded:
Hosts: “Have you officially responded to Elizabeth Warren’s comment about how she didn’t take her clothes off?”
Scott Brown, laughing: “Thank God.”
With that broadside, Mr. Brown stepped into a gender minefield that threatened to alienate many women voters. To be sure, Ms. Warren’s swipe was unnecessary and gratuitous—and the question itself was sophomoric. But regardless of whether or not Ms. Warren opened the door to Mr. Brown’s response (she did), the political price was paid almost solely by Mr. Brown.
A reader from South Africa recently asked:
“I wish to check with you on the ethics of publishing a media response to more than the persons that enquired. This is in a case of apparent collusion between members of the political opposition and the media.”
My answer is yes, absolutely. Based on your question, I’d say that “ethics” aren’t a factor here. If you were refusing to speak to any reporters, particularly about matters that concern the public interest, you might be entering into an unethical situation—but speaking to more reporters is different.
That said, I still wouldn’t go down that path, at least not as a first step.
The goal of media relations is to try to establish positive (or at least not negative) relationships with reporters. So the first question I’d ask you is whether you’ve done everything in your power to build a better relationship with the news organization? For example, have you taken these seven steps? Or, if you’re being falsely accused of something you haven’t done, have you considered these three options?
If you have—and you have strong reason to believe that the news organization is “colluding” with the political opposition—then yes, it is an acceptable practice to issue a response to numerous news outlets simultaneously and/or through your own websites and social media sites.
If the news organization complains, you can explain your rationale for circumventing them. Doing so may give you another opportunity to heal your relationship with them (you can offer to respond to their answers directly in the future in return for fairer coverage). Notice that I said “fairer” coverage, not “favorable” coverage. You still may not like all of the stories published by the media outlet—a reporter’s job isn’t to make you happy—but if their reporting is reasonably accurate, it may represent a meaningful improvement upon your current situation.
Of course, circumventing an individual reporter by responding to everyone at once could make your current relationship with that journalist even worse, which can lead to more hostile coverage against you. That’s why you should think carefully about whether you’ve truly done everything you can to improve your relationship with them.
Finally, you might also approach a competing news organization or media ombudsman-type to pitch the idea of running a story about their competitor’s inaccurate reporting. Some news organizations relish the idea of fact checking a competitor; here in the U.S., for example, it’s common to see Fox News questioning reporting on MSNBC, and vice versa.
Thanks for your email, and good luck in managing this situation!
Do you have a question you’d like to see answered on the blog? Please send an email to Contact@MrMediaTraining.com.
Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch has a reputation for his erratic media interviews—and he has been fined thousands of dollars by the NFL for his occasional refusal to speak to the press.
In the week leading up to tonight’s Super Bowl, Lynch agreed to comply with the NFL’s requirement that he speak to the press, if only to avoid receiving a reported $500,000 penalty. But he only followed the letter of the rule—not the spirit of it—and defiantly said, “I’m here so I won’t get fined” dozens of times.
By refusing to interact with reporters, Lynch turned himself into a headline-grabbing spectacle who magnified the amount of attention his interview would receive instead of diminishing it. And he doubled down the next day.
“I don’t know what story y’all trying to get out of me. I don’t know what image y’all trying to portray of me. But it don’t matter what y’all think, what y’all say about me. When I go home at night, the same people that I look in the face — my family that I love. That’s all that really matter to me. So y’all can go make up whatever y’all want to make up because I don’t say enough for y’all to go and put anything out on me.”
I’ve followed the conversation about Lynch’s interviews for the past week, and there’s a stark split in opinion. Many people support him, pointing out that the NFL demands more availability of its players than its executives, while others, including many sports reporters, find his defiance infuriating.
Count me in the latter camp. Mr. Lynch is a professional athlete. And nothing about his public persona conveys a sense of professionalism.
I’ve seen people arguing that his job is to perform on the field, not in front of microphones. I find that argument to be insulting toward professional athletes, several of whom I’ve counted as clients. After all, we would never say, “That Fortune 500 executive is great in the board room, so his defiance in front of the cameras is hilarious,” or, “That politician who told the press to shove off for four minutes is great at policy, so it’s fine for him to repeat the same phrase 30 times.” So why do we accept that behavior from professional athletes representing a professional sports franchise and sport?
Earlier this month, a friend of mine—the communications director for a major professional sports franchise—told me why this poor media relations strategy matters. In a post on my blog, he wrote:
“We grow any of the games we work in through young kids, and for them to see this does not help the game…I want players in my room respecting the media and the media respecting the players and the job they do. It is my job to keep that scale as even as possible throughout the season. Dealing with players, their goal is to make their team and themselves look the best they can, both on and off the field.”
And he also wrote that athletes such as Lynch should remember that their media performance could have larger impacts on their careers:
“I’ve seen it happen when the attitudes of players prevents teams from ‘investing’ in them. As important as it is to compete on the playing field/ice/gym, when it comes time to sign a free agent or make a trade, all of these things go into an organization’s evaluation process. Is ‘said player’ worth disrupting the current team?”
I hope the NFL fines Lynch for breaking the intention of the rule. Media availabilities are opportunities to positively sell the sport—something the NFL is in dire need of, particularly in a season that has been dominated by headlines about domestic abuse and brain injuries. This doesn’t help. And in the end, team sports should be about the team, not serve as an opportunity to advance your own performance art.
Agree? Disagree? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
I recently flew first class from New York to London. I was immediately impressed when I boarded and saw my seat, one of those private pods that folds down into a horizontal bed. The flight attendant greeted me warmly, gave me a hot towel, and handed me a menu full of delicious-sounding food choices. This, I thought, is going to be a flight to remember. Unfortunately, a series of service glitches quickly tainted my experience.
First, for breakfast, the flight attendant brought me a croissant. It was soft and cold, not warm and flaky.
Then the attendant served me coffee a full 15 minutes before breakfast was served. By the time the meal hit my tray, the coffee was cold. Did anyone come by to refresh it or offer to warm it for me? Nope.
In an attempt to remedy that situation, I pressed my call button to attract the flight attendant’s attention. It took two minutes—two whole minutes!—for the flight attendant to respond. Why am I paying for first class if they’re not going to be efficient enough to respond to a first class passenger’s needs more efficiently?
To help distract myself from the poor service, I rented a movie. Guess what? The pilot and flight crew continually interrupted the movie with announcements. Don’t they know it’s hard to get into a movie if people keep talking over it?
Okay, I have a confession. With the exception of the fact that I was fortunate enough to ride first class to London (that’s really my seat above), nothing in the introduction above is true.
But I wanted to lead off this piece with that litany of complaints to ask you a few questions:
- 1. How did the introduction to this piece make you feel? Like I’m a whiner with a disturbing sense of entitlement?
- 2. Did your impression of me dim as you read it?
- 3. Are you ever guilty of lodging those types of complaints using social media?
Perhaps you don’t take to your social media pages to gripe that way, but I often observe people posting tweets like these:
Hey, @United, we landed 25 minutes ago and we’ve been sitting at the gate without being allowed to deplane. Guess your staff is on break? #Incompetent
Hey, @Delta, what’s up with flight 842? It’s already been delayed by 45 minutes—you can’t even keep flights on time during good weather? #morons
Those tweeters should think about whether those petty complaints come at some small cost to their reputations. Whenever I see one of those tweets, I think to myself, “With all of the problems in the world, that 25-minute delay is worth an angry tweet to a network of thousands of professional contacts? It’s airline travel. Stuff goes wrong. You should know that by now. Get over it.”
I know that sounds strident, so it’s only fair to turn the pen against myself. I’ve been guilty of sending similar tweets. As an example, I sent an unnecessarily snide tweet to AT&T last year for assessing a late charge because I inadvertently shorted the payment by a few cents.
The issue with my AT&T tweet wasn’t the “rightness” of my complaint—I thought then and still think now that assessing a late fee for an underpayment of a few cents is a lousy way to treat a long-term customer with a perfect payment history. Rather, it was the snaky tone I used. There was no reason for me to begin with such antagonism, particularly because they responded quickly to me and remedied the situation. I imagine the tone I used was off-putting not only to the AT&T rep who amiably fixed my problem, but to a few people who follow my tweets—and rightly so.
Social media offers a wonderful platform for customers and companies to speak with one another. All I’m suggesting here is that you remember the company you’re tweeting is only one audience you’re reaching. You’re also reaching everyone else who sees and judges the tone of your posts and the manner in which you deal with life’s minor annoyances.
What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
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.