Brian Williams’ decision to take a temporary leave of absence from the anchor chair at “NBC Nightly News” has done little to quell the controversy now swirling around him after Williams admitted last week that he falsely claimed he was aboard a helicopter that was “hit and crippled” by enemy fire during the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
“I would not have chosen to make this mistake,” Williams said on the February 4 broadcast of Nightly News. “I don’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft from the other.”
NBC says it is investigating the claim, but the chum is in the water, and it’s hard to see how Williams survives in the anchor chair without NBC further eroding its credibility. His trustworthiness has already taken a serious hit. What’s more, soon after Williams apologized for the claim regarding the war in Iraq came reports that Williams’ coverage of Hurricane Katrina (in 2005) now is under scrutiny.
Williams, who has been anchor since 2004, has been the face of NBC News for nearly a decade, parlaying his celebrity into appearances on corporate siblings “Saturday Night Live” and (now-defunct) “30 Rock.”
But nobody’s laughing now, as Williams’ fib could cost him his job.
The scandal is a stark reminder that even the slightest embellishment in communications could seriously damage your career and reputation, not to mention the guilt by association that your brand or organization would most likely suffer if you get caught in a lie.
With that in mind, here are a few things that PR pros should never say to a reporter, lest they are metaphysically certain of its veracity:
➢ “We have an exclusive story planned for you.” You better make sure upper management is in alignment with the particular media outlet you have in mind for the exclusive. These things can change on a dime, and nothing alienates a reporter more than having an “exclusive” suddenly disappear, particularly after he told the editorial brass.
➢ “I can get you an interview with the CEO to talk about the new campaign.” Oh really? Is this something that was definitely agreed upon during a recent board meeting to discuss a specific campaign or did the CEO mention in passing that he or she wants to be more media-friendly (without providing any kind of commitment)?
➢ “I’ll be sure and get you those numbers you need.” Nothing encourages a reporter more than being assured of getting some numbers/stats/financials that can help tell the story. But what the PR department thinks is fair game for reporters the financial department may think is off limits. Make sure those internal relationships are airtight—and you know what numbers are ready for the light of day—before you start making promises to reporters.
➢ “Let me arrange for you to get a tour of the new office/plant/etc.” Sure, PR folks are inclined to give reporters and media reps a look-see of the latest addition to the company—whether that’s a brand-new wing for the corporate headquarters or opening an office—to see how it dovetails with the overall operation. But upper management often can be persnickety about showing off things to the media. If you offer a tour, be very specific to the reporter(s) about what’s fair game and what’s off limits. Don’t write checks you can’t cash.
What would you add to the list of things PR pros should never to say to reporters?
Follow Matthew Schwartz on Twitter: @mpsjourno1