Yes… Brian Williams.
There is nothing worse for anyone than to be caught in the cross hairs of the media. It can be a person, a company, or even a brand. What can you do if you make an honest mistake or if you are the victim of a negative campaign? How can you survive the experience?
The intent is not to comment on Brian Williams’ integrity or professionalism. Let’s analyze how his personal crisis unfolded and ask how you should handle the situation? How did Brian do?
(Please refer to the time line at the end of the article.)
The remarkable fact of Williams’ predicament is that the crisis is based on a story that has been unfolding for almost 12 years. The trigger of the crisis began on 30 January 2015, Williams recounted a story of mortal danger in a helicopter in Iraq in 2003 on the “NBC Nightly News” program. The wide distribution of the broadcast brought it to the attention of other participants of the event who objected to the accuracy of Williams’ narration of the events and his role in what actually occurred.
So, as a public figure how do you respond to this situation?
(These are really more guidelines that rules.)
According to Dorie Clark (Dorie Clark is a marketing strategy consultant, speaker, and author), there are several steps you have to take to counter a media crisis or minimize the danger.
The most important first action is to determine and confirm the facts of the story. Gather as much information as possible.
Second, you’ll have to respond with the facts as quickly and thoroughly as possible. The worse situation is releasing partial information or “not quite right” facts.
Third, you want to avoid at all costs, the multiday story.
There is an inherent conflict between speed of response and accurate responses. You want to gather information and respond quickly, but it may take some time to gather all the needed information. The tiebreaker is that if the story is going to be multiday story anyway, error on the side of accurate and comprehensive information. An acceptable compromise is to use a neutral response, “We are aware of the situation and we are doing everything in our power to gather information and determine the facts.”
Dorie’s fourth point is: if you are right, great, but… if you are going to end up at “I’m sorry”, you should get there as soon as possible.
From crisis start (30 January) to “I’m sorry” (4 February) = five days.
[UPDATE February 10 2015 – Suspension = 11 days.]
The correct information Williams reported the original story correctly in 2003, but over the years the story has accumulated a number of “not quite right” facts. The additional embellishments and the change in the point of view became his narrative, the narrative he reinforced with each subsequent telling.
The crisis was ignited when the difference between the narrative and the facts came to public attention. The circumstances of the original story, as broadcast by Williams in 2003 and later confirmed by other witnesses, was probably the most accurate facts of the event. With that as evidence, Williams could only conclude his 30 January 2015 broadcast description of the incident was wrong.
Respond as quickly as possible. Williams was unresponsive from 30 January to 4 February 2015.
You can imagine that the NBC News division was in fact check mode to understand the story background. Everyone probably realized that they needed to take their time, review their information, and perform the appropriate due diligence. There was going to be no way to avoid the dreaded… multiday story.
The Dreaded Multiday Story. The nature of the story would guarantee that this topic would continue for a long time.
Another level of the story was the overarching public debate on journalistic integrity. The incident raised the moral question of his integrity, and the integrity of NBC News.
Additionally, every day that Williams was seen on television invited additional comment (mostly outrage) and increased the damage to his brand and NBC News’ brand.
“I’m sorry.” After reviewing the facts, it seemed as if everyone agreed that Williams was completely wrong, including Williams.
On 4 February, Williams broadcast “I’m sorry”. To his credit, and in my opinion, the apology seemed sincere, he took full responsibility for his actions, and there were no weasel worded statements (such as “if my conduct offended anyone, I feel bad about it”).
The controversy did not end with his apology. The integrity of the news and journalism profession had not be addressed. As mentioned earlier, every day that Williams remained the anchorman and managing editor, the story would continue to as a multiday story.
NBC has yet to take some action and conclude the crisis by giving a consequence and a fitting end to the story.
[UPDATE February 10, 2015 – NBC News President Deborah Turness suspended Williams’ from Nightly News for six months without pay.]
I give Brian Williams an A- for his crisis management: his response was a little slow, but in the end he reviewed the evidence, realized his mistake, and produced a credible mea culpa.
[UPDATE February 10, 2015 – Upon suspension by NBC, he did not squawk and struggle. He removed himself from the public eye (for at least six months) and is no longer fodder for the news cycle.
The story may not be completely over, but it is no longer news.]
Timeline of Brian Williams’ statements on Iraqi helicopter attack
By Lauren Carroll on Thursday, February 5th, 2015 at 2:01 pm.
- March 26, 2003 – Williams’ original report indicated that a helicopter in front of his was hit
- September 2003: NBC publishes a book, “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” in which they describe Williams’ experience, implying that his helicopter sustained fire
- March 2005: According to CNN, Williams discussed the incident with late journalist Tim Russert on CNBC
- Sept. 27, 2007 – Williams wrote a blog post recalling the incident, where it’s unclear if his helicopter was attacked
- May 12, 2008: Williams writes another blog, responding to a note from a soldier who he met in Iraq. In this post, Williams indicates that he was in a helicopter that took fire
- March 4, 2013: In an interview with actor Alec Baldwin on WNYC’s Here’s the Thing, Williams said he thought he could have died during the attack
- March 26, 2013: On the 10th anniversary of his helicopter ride, Williams recounted the experience with late night talk show host David Letterman
- Jan. 30, 2015: Williams retold the story on NBC Nightly News. The broadcast shows Williams with a soldier at a New York Rangers hockey game at Madison Square Garden, where the game announcer told the story over a loudspeaker
- Feb. 4, 2015: Williams apologized for saying that he rode in a helicopter that sustained fire and clarified his remarks on NBC Nightly News
A more detail version of this timeline by Lauren Carroll can be found at:
Timeline Brian Williams Statements Iraqi Helicopter
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