What Is Brian Williams’ Best Crisis Management Strategy?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on February 5, 2015 – 9:51 am

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?

Brian Williams

I asked that question on Twitter last night; here’s what a few of you said:

Brian Williams Twitter Three

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.

Brian Williams Twitter One

Brian Williams Twitter Two

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?Brian Williams Twitter Four

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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Posted in Crisis Communications | 4 Comments »

Why You Shouldn’t Trust “Man On The Street” Interviews

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on May 21, 2014 – 12:02 am

When I worked for CNN, I occasionally went into the streets of Washington, D.C. to interview “real people” about a topic in the news.

Those interviews—known within newsrooms as an M.O.S. (“man on the street”) or a “vox pop” (derived from the Latin “voice of the people”)—always struck me as problematic.

If we interviewed 20 people about a specific topic, we might have encountered 14 people with a “for” position and 6 with an “against” viewpoint. But when we edited the interviews, we might have had time to air quotes from only two of the people—so for purposes of “balance,” we’d air one of each, as if that 50/50 ratio represented the views we encountered. 

young journalist giving microphone

That’s an inherent problem with the M.O.S. Time and space restrictions prevent every comment from being aired or printed, so they have to be condensed. Some journalists are better than others about disclosing the overall sentiment of opinions they encountered—and even if they do, that sentiment doesn’t mean much, since M.O.S. interviews only represent a specific place and time (M.O.S. interviews shot on Wall Street would likely yield different results than ones shot at a homeless shelter).

I’m far from the only person skeptical of the technique. In fact, some of the journalists I worked with referred to the M.O.S. under a different, more jaded name: Any Available Assholes, or A.A.A.s. Although flip, it really did seem to capture the essence of the assignment.

Stephen Colbert recently mocked Fox News correspondent Jesse Watters, who occasionally uses the M.O.S. technique to make his subjects look uninformed. Here’s Watters’ technique:


And Colbert’s hilarious response:


For all of these reasons, both silly and serious, I recommend viewing M.O.S. interviews with great skepticism—unless reporters disclose their broader findings.

What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Posted in Media Analysis | 8 Comments »

Rutgers Official: I Hope The Local Newspaper Dies

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on April 7, 2014 – 2:21 pm

Many people have fantasized about their opponents in the media being put out of business. But most of them have the good sense not to give voice to their dark wishes.

That didn’t stop Rutgers University Athletic Director Julie Hermann from publicly fantasizing about the demise of her media nemesis, New Jersey’s Star-Ledger. According to Star-Ledger columnist Steve Politi (and originally reported by Rutgers University student website Muckgers):

“If they’re not writing headlines that are getting our attention, they’re not selling ads – and they die,” Hermann told the Media Ethics and Law class. “And the Ledger almost died in June, right?”

“They might die again next month,” a student said.

“That would be great,” she replied. “I’m going to do all I can to not give them a headline to keep them alive.”

Julie Hermann

Now that’s a new one. Giving such a juicy headline in a quote about not giving the newspaper a headline?

Worse than the quote itself is Ms. Hermann’s timing. Last week, the Star-Ledger laid off 167 staffers. That a local college official appears to be dancing on their professional graves during a tough economy makes her look vindictive, petty, and small.

Worse yet, Ms. Hermann’s response isn’t much better than her original comments.

According to The Detroit News:

“The university said in a statement that Hermann’s remarks to a media ethics and law class in February came before she knew about deep layoffs at the Star-Ledger…Rutgers said her statements were “intended to give the students some understanding of the challenges she has faced” and were not expected to be made public. She did not apologize.”

Ridiculous. That Ms. Hermann had any expectation for privacy in a public setting is ludicrous. (How many times have I written about this already?)

Plus, what kind of message is that to send to a media ethics class—that if you don’t like the coverage you’re receiving, you should wish for the news organization’s demise? Ms. Hermann owes the newspaper—along with the men and women who work for it and the students she was lecturing to—an apology.

Thank you to the anonymous tipster who forwarded this story to me. Have a tip? Send it to Contact@MrMediaTraining.com.

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Posted in Media Training Disasters | 1 Comment »

Can You Help This Reader Manage An Unethical Journalist?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on October 8, 2013 – 6:02 am

A reader recently wrote in with a problem he’s facing with a local journalist.

His company frequently releases news that impacts the local community and could be fairly considered “newsworthy.” The problem? He works in a small market with just one television station—and that station is irked that his company hasn’t purchased advertising with them.

There’s obviously supposed to be a firewall between news and advertising. The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics is clear on this one: “Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two.”

But the head of this local television station has repeatedly complained to this reader for having the audacity to call his station for news coverage considering that the company has declined to advertise with them.

Salesman Pushy With Contract

What advice would you offer this reader? Keep in mind that the television station is the only one in town, so maintaining positive relations is the ideal outcome here.

Also, have you encountered this type of breach between news and advertising? How have you managed it? And is that practice more common than I think it is?

Please leave your thoughts and suggestions in the comments section below. My reader and I look forward to learning from you on this one.

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Posted in Media Relations | 12 Comments »

A 19-Year-Old, A Racist Tweet And A Front-Page Shaming

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on September 7, 2013 – 9:05 pm

Penn State’s student newspaper, The Daily Collegian, ran a front-page story on Friday about a student who sent a racially incendiary tweet. 

Ashley Lytle, a 19-year-old student, tweeted:

Ashley Lytle Tweet

That’s obviously an inappropriate and offensive tweet—one that I have no intent of defending. She deserves to be criticized for sending it. 

But instead of focusing on my usual angle of media training, I’d rather focus on the sticky question of journalistic responsibility.

When writing about a 19-year-old college student who’s not a public figure (she’s not a student leader or high-profile college athlete), there must be some degree of proportionality. I have to imagine that many other Penn State students—there are more than 39,000 undergraduates at University Park—have also sent offensive tweets or said similarly offensive things. Is the new standard for the Collegian to shame everyone who does on its front page? And if not, is their cherry picking—which will mark Ms. Lytle as a racist for much of her college life—appropriate? 

In this case, the front page placement seems irresponsible given the thinness of the news story. (You can read the full article here, which doesn’t say much other than: Student sends bad tweet. Some people mad.) If there were mass protests on campus from offended students, I’d understand the front-page coverage. Same if the administration was considering kicking her out of the school or if the article served as more of an in-depth look at the ill effects of social media on campus. 

None of that was the case here.

Yes, this story may have been worthy of mention in the paper. But it would have been more responsible to cover the story on an inside page, which would have served the dual purpose of covering the story while giving it proportional coverage. 

Regardless, this story, like so many others, underscores the need for social media training. Some colleges and universities are offering that to students—particularly for student-athletes—but in a world in which a single tweet can destroy a person’s reputation, it makes sense to arm every student with the information they need to make smarter choices. (Chris Syme’s excellent book “Practice Safe Social” is a great place to start.)

For her part, Ms. Lytle has apologized.

UPDATE: September 8, 2013, 2:45 P.M.

I received an email from Brittany Horn, the Editor-in-Chief of The Daily Collegian, explaining her paper’s decision to cover this story. Due to the length of her response, I’ve posted it, in its entirely, to the comments section below. I encourage you to read her letter in full. You’ll also find my response to her email beneath her comment.

What Do You Think?

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A grateful hat tip to @ProfNichols.

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Posted in Social Media | 35 Comments »

A Small Thanks To Helen Thomas

Written by Christina Mozaffari (@PMRChristina) on July 23, 2013 – 6:01 am

Journalism just lost one of its most dynamic and dedicated stars.

Veteran reporter Helen Thomas died on Saturday at the age of 92. A pioneer for women in journalism, she was the first woman to cover the president and not just the First Lady; the first female president of the White House Correspondents Association; and, above all, a no-nonsense reporter who fired tough questions at every president who has served since John F. Kennedy. In short, she was a force.

But I’ll remember her for a different reason.


Helen Thomas


A long time ago, Helen Thomas sat down with a group of high school kids visiting Washington, D.C. – myself included — who wanted to be reporters. She talked to us about the profession and her experience. I was star-struck, inspired, and excited to pursue a career in journalism.

Upon her death, the president of the White House Correspondents Association said that “women and men who’ve followed in the press corps all owe a debt of gratitude for the work Helen did and the doors she opened.” But I’d go a step further and say we can learn a lot from Ms. Thomas when it comes to paving the way for young people starting their professional lives.

That small amount of time Ms. Thomas gave us — gave me — made a big difference in my life, and for that, I’m grateful. I’m also reminded how important mentoring is.

I certainly didn’t make it through my journalism career without a lot of gracious help and guidance from people who had been in the profession longer than me. I was fortunate to start my career in Washington D.C. surrounded by some of the best news professionals in the business, and I still employ their lessons in my work today.

Even small efforts, like having coffee with an entry-level employee to talk about career paths, or writing a glowing recommendation for a deserving intern, or speaking to a classroom of young children about what you do, can make a huge difference in a life. Don’t miss your opportunity to positively influence the future of your profession, just like Helen did for journalism.

Christina Mozaffari was an Emmy Award-winning journalist for NBC News. Today, she serves as the vice president for Phillips Media Relations.

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Posted in Media Analysis | 3 Comments »

Should Reporters Be More Polite?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on July 25, 2012 – 6:04 am

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Amanda Wokurka, MA, a Communications Professor at Missouri Baptist University and Webster University in St. Louis, Missouri. She teaches media law, media interviewing, PR, public speaking and crisis communications. Her email is wokurkaa@mobap.edu.

Brad usually writes about how media spokespersons can do better in media interviews. But today, I’m flipping the equation and looking at three ways interviewers can do better – and that means avoiding the sensationalism that too many of their media colleagues inject into their interviews.

Can Manners Exist in Media Interviews?

We are told when we are children to "always remember our manners" and to "be polite." However, when we grow up, this seems to be put on the back burner. This is especially true with media interviewing.  Many interviewers invite people to be guests on their shows and forget the one simple fact: that they are just that…guests. 

Whether on radio or television, interviews seem to lack manners. This is not a childish lost art but very much an application of professional courtesy. Following three simple rules could be the difference between entertainment sensationalism perceived as a YouTube joke and interviewing genius. 

Amanda Wokurka argues that reporters should be more polite.

1. Don’t Talk Over Each Other:  Interruptions are more common in media interviews than anything else. The interviewee agreed to be on your show to plug a new book or discuss his or her views on a policy. Even if a debate ensues, apply the Golden Listening Rule. In other words, listen to others as you would have them listen to you. Let them talk and try to hear what they are really saying. Don’t just wait to talk, but actually listen and frame your next question based upon their answers.

Nothing is more annoying for the viewer at home than to have two people trying to talk over each other and straining for the point of the question. As you’ll see in the interview with Rep. Joe Walsh and CNN’s Ashleigh Banfield (below), the interruptions and combative tone on both sides made the entire ordeal painful. 

The bottom line is this: If both the interviewer and interviewee are talking over each other to try to make their point clear, the audience will only see it as noise and not be interested in any of your points.

2. Remember That It’s Not About You:  Many times, the interviewer and interviewee will have different agendas. The interviewer may want to trap or ask question pitfalls to try to get a controversial guest to admit something while the interviewee just wants to plug their new book. 

If you are the interviewer, use pitfall questions wisely. Try not to get too personal or the interview may appear awkward. Try not to impress the interviewee with your range of intelligence by asking complex questions. Keep the questions simple, open-ended and to the point. Remember your goal. Are you anticipating a “media moment,” or are you trying to gather information? Pitfalls can generate a genuine response from the interviewee but may also create tension – and your guests may not want to answer future questions.

Many interviewers appear arrogant by putting words in the interviewee’s mouth and not letting them choose their own vocabulary when answering a question. If the interviewee feels that a justified response is necessary, they may be hesitant to answer future questions. Begin with simple questions about the present and then ease into controversial topics about the past or future. Do not blindside the interviewee as seen in this Quentin Tarantino interview. 

3. Leave Your Bias at the Door: If you have an opinion or a prejudice against each other, leave it at the door. Do not bring it into your interview. Avoid judgmental wording. The quickest way to lose professionalism is to allow negative emotions into an interview. Take a breath and pause.

There is no scientific formula that anyone must follow. The roles of interviewer and interviewee can sometimes switch from moment to moment and all interviews are different. However, the element of consideration is something that should be incorporated into all interviews. Interviewers that display a basic sense of manners will almost always have interviewees who comply more with requests.   

Think of your interviewee as a guest at a party. Would you yell at them in front of other people? Would you make them feel awkward and uncomfortable or would you treat them with respect? The same rules apply in an interview.

What do you think? Do you agree with Amanda’s view that interviewers should be more polite to their guests, or do you think it’s occasionally part of a reporter’s job to make guests feel uncomfortable? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

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  • About Mr. Media Training

    The Mr. Media Training Blog offers daily tips to help readers become better media spokespersons and public speakers. It also examines how well (or poorly) public figures are communicating through the media.

    Brad Phillips is the Founder and Managing Editor of the Mr. Media Training Blog. He is the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm with offices in NYC and DC.

    Brad Phillips

    Before founding Phillips Media Relations in 2004, Brad worked as a journalist with ABC's Nightline with Ted Koppel and CNN's Reliable Sources and The Capital Gang.

    Brad tweets at @MrMediaTraining.

    Christina Mozaffari is the Senior Writer for the Mr. Media Training Blog. She is the Washington, D.C. vice president for Phillips Media Relations.

    Brad Phillips

    Before joining Phillips Media Relations in 2011, Christina worked as a journalist with NBC News, where she produced stories for MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, NBC Nightly News, and The Today Show.

    Christina tweets at @PMRChristina.

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