Will NBC’s Statement on Costas Inform Fox News’ Treatment of Shepard Smith?

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And you thought the story of Sean Hannity seemingly changing his tune on Judge Roy Moore’s fitness for office was the only big story coming from Fox News Tuesday night.

Well, one of Hannity’s colleagues at Fox News, anchor Shepard Smith, is being trounced today for speaking his mind about the weakness of evidence behind a story regarding Hillary Clinton and the sale of a Canadian company called Uranium One. Reports of payments influencing Clinton’s approval of the sale while Secretary of State have been a staple of Fox News as well as President Trump and other Republicans for a while.

Smith is known for blasting Republican positions when he deems it necessary. Still, his apparent apostasy and attack on a position that President Trump also holds has made headlines. A clip of his comments went viral on social media platforms late Tuesday. Some Fox News viewers have called for Smith’s ouster.

Hannity, as opposed to Smith, was not speaking out of school when he changed his tune on Judge Moore. The chorus for Moore to step aside has been gaining in intensity on both sides of the political spectrum.

The question for in-house communicators is how to deal with an employee who speaks out against someone or something that your brand holds dear. So far we’ve not heard that Fox News has said anything about Smith’s remarks.

Of course, Fox News is far from a stranger to controversy, thanks to its handling (or mishandling) of erstwhile star anchor Bill O’Reilly and the network’s founder, the late Roger Ailes.

shutterstock_337855208An example of how another brand handled an employee speaking his mind might be instructive, although we’re not endorsing the tactics used in this case. Bob Costas, the popular sports announcer (pictured left), told a journalism forum in Maryland earlier this month that football’s future is bleak because the “game destroys [players’] brains.”

The business and PR issue, of course, is that Costas’ employer, NBC, is in bed big time with the National Football League. NBC owns rights to Sunday Night Football.

Costas’ remarks made headlines, likely angering the NFL. All this prompted NBC to retort, “Bob’s opinions are his own, and they do not represent those of the NBC Sports Group.”

Really? The folks at NBC Sports Group believe 300-pound players banging their heads against each other at high speeds doesn’t result in brain damage? Do they believe their NBC News colleague Brian Williams was in a helicopter that came under enemy fire over Iraq? Oh, right, they don’t believe that either.

Joking aside, we’re fairly certain the good people of NBC Sports Group understand football’s violent collisions can lead to brain issues. They also know there’s a cloud hovering over the NFL on this issue. Yet NBC Sport Group’s statement was more than a way to mollify its NFL partners. This public statement also serves as a warning to Costas and all other talent at NBC Sports to keep their opinions to themselves, particularly when it comes to a cash cow like the NFL.

As PR News‘ Steve Goldstein pointed out recently on this site, “We have free speech in this country, yet brands are also free to set limits on acceptable behavior and to suspend or fire employees.” Goldstein was writing about ESPN’s handling of another media personality named Smith, reporter Jemele Smith. Ms. Smith’s employer deemed her repeated political comments out of bounds for a sports network. ESPN warned and later suspended her.

Follow Seth: @skarenstein