20150305 Bill O’Reilly (Managing a Crisis)
On the heels of the Brian Williams media crisis, another celebrity was caught up in a crisis similar to, and directly related to Williams. Bill O’Reilly, the Fox News commentator, was accused of the exact same misconduct in an article from Mother Jones magazine.
Quick review: Williams was suspended by NBC News when it became publicly known that Williams had exaggerated a claim from 2003 that he had almost been killed in Iraq. He claimed that he was riding in a helicopter when it took ground fire and was forced to make an emergency landing. The actual facts showed that he was in a group of 4 helicopters at the time and it was a helicopter in front of his that was hit. He was unaware of the danger until after the fact and on the ground.
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 here is not to comment on Bill O’Reilly’ integrity or professionalism. Let’s analyze how his crisis unfolded and ask how you would handle the situation? How did O’Reilly do?
O’Reilly’s case requires some context. He is a well-known, right wing pundit with his own news commentary program on Fox News. In an 11 February 2015 broadcast, the day after Williams is suspended, O’Reilly commented on the controversy as a warning of the deception in the liberal media. A screen quote from his show reads “If you can’t trust a news anchor or commentator, then you’re not going to watch that person.”
“We’ve made some mistakes in the past but very few…We take great pains to present you with information that can be verified.”
“Reporting comes with a big responsibility, the Founding Fathers made that point very clearly. They said to us, ‘We’ll give you freedom. We’ll protect you from government intrusion. But, in return, you, the press, must be honest.'”
– Bill O’Reilly, 11 February 2015 broadcast
The 19 February 2015 Mother Jones article summarizes O’Reilly’s broadcast. The article suggests that O’Reilly is a hypocrite for scolding Williams and documents two instances, one in Argentina and one in El Salvador, when O’Reilly repeated shared two over exaggerated claims while covering stories in Argentina and El Salvador. Like Williams’, O’Reilly original reports were inconsequential news pieces that later inflated into combat experiences.
So, as a public figure how do you respond to this situation?
Dorie’s Rules (again)
(These are really more guidelines that rules.)
In an earlier article I discussed crisis communications according to Dorie Clark (Dorie Clark is a marketing strategy consultant, speaker, and author). There are several steps you must take to counter a media crisis or mitigate the impact:
- Determine and confirm the facts of the story. Gather as much information as possible.
- Respond with the facts as quickly and thoroughly as possible. The worse situation is releasing partial information or “not quite right” facts. But, you want to directly refute incorrect information. Dispute falsehoods and get the real facts out there!
- Avoid at all costs, the multiday story. The need for both speedy and accurate responses are conflicting. You want to gather information and respond quickly, but it may take some time to gather all the needed information. If the story is going to be multiday story anyway, error on the side of accurate and comprehensive information.
- If you are proven right, great! But… if you are going to end up at “I’m sorry”, you should get there as soon as possible.
“I’ve been there. That’s really what separates me from most of these other bloviators. I bloviate, but I bloviate about stuff I’ve seen. They bloviate about stuff that they haven’t.”
– Bill O’Reilly
Step 1, find correct information. Ok, O’Reilly claims to have been crawling around in his basement looking for information. He did find information. He proved he was in Argentina, but everyone agrees with that fact.
He did not address the accusation of lying about his combat experience. Oddly from a Boston guy, he takes the New York City approach “fugetaboutit”.
Step 2, Respond quickly and thoroughly. O’Reilly responded the same day. He took another direction from what Dorie Clark would have advised. He opted not to be thorough. He went with what I call the Sun Tzu method of public communications “Invincibility lies in the defense; the possibility of victory in the attack.” (From Sun Tzu’s “Art of War”.)
His response was an ad hominin attack on David Corn and Mother Jones Magazine. He refers to Corn as a “liar”, a “left-wing assassin”, and a “despicable guttersnipe”. He says about Mother Jones that it is “considered by many the bottom rung of journalism in America”.
Step 3, Avoid Dreaded Multiday Story Ok, he didn’t avoid that either.
Day 1 Mother Jones article
Day 1 O’Reilly’s personal attacks on Mother Jones magazine and the articles authors, David Corn and Daniel Schulman.
Day 2 David Corn’s response. Mother Jones didn’t claim O’Reilly exaggerated, as O’Reilly mentions, but there are inconsistences between what O’Reilly says and the factual record.
Day 5 On CNN a former CBS colleague, Eric Engberg, disputes O’Reilly’s characterization of the riots in Buenos Aires as a combat zone.
Day 6 Other new agencies begin to analyze O’Reilly’s previous claims and begin to fact check his books.
Day 6 O’Reilly shows footage and feels it explains everything and controversy can now stop. The video proves he was in Argentina, which, again, nobody disputes, but does not defend the original accusations.
Day 9 The Washington Post reviews O’Reilly’s history in detail and document two more exaggerations.
Day 12 The Christian Science Monitor reports that Fox News made a statement to the Washington Post and admitted that:
- O’Reilly exaggerated his experiences in Belfast and did not see any Irish terrorists bomb fellow citizens.
- O’Reilly said in a separate statement that he didn’t see nuns murdered in El Salvador, but he did see pictures!
Step 4, When wrong just say “I’m sorry.” Right… No. That will not happen. Bill O’Reilly has no history for backing down or apologizing even after being proven wrong.
There really is a proven way to properly address crisis communications. Research, defend, make it quick, say sorry (or celebrate victory!). I give Bill O’Reilly an F for his crisis management. He missed every possible step.
The good news, at least for O’Reilly and Fox news, ratings are up 11%.