The Williams Affair: A Teachable Moment for PR

The Brian Williams saga has elicited many reactions, of course, but for PR pros following the story perhaps the thought that arose most often was: ‘How would I have handled the situation had I been a communicator at NBC News?’

Williams’ six-month suspension from NBC Nightly News, announced last week, could be a precursor to the anchor being sacked. It seems unlikely that Williams—his credibility shot—can return as anchor and managing editor of the nightly news after admitting earlier this month he falsely claimed to be aboard a helicopter that was “hit and crippled” by enemy fire during the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

From a communications viewpoint, NBC News’ initial reaction to the situation failed to inspire.

On February 7, days following the disclosure and his on-camera apology February 5, Williams announced that he had decided to take a temporary leave of absence.

The public reaction to the announcement was that NBC was treating Williams with kid gloves and/or was stalling.

“Who’s in charge?” a major TV network communications chief said, referring to the temporary leave.

Indeed, from a PR perspective, NBC seemed to flub things from the get-go, allowing Williams to tell the public that he was punishing himself.

The move smacked of the tail wagging the dog. On February 10, NBC pulled an about-face and suspended Williams without pay for six months.

“The corporation should have made the decision [to suspend Williams],” the TV network communications exec added. “[NBC] may have allowed [Williams] to [announce a leave of absence], to help him save face a little, but it would have been better if his bosses made the decision and announced they were removing him temporarily...This is a serious situation, the issues are much larger than what Brian Williams did or didn’t do in the last 10 years. It’s a question of brand and financial implications.”

NBC redeemed itself, to a degree, with its handling of the suspension. Prior to that it made a momentous move, PR sources said, ordering its investigative journalists to prepare a report on other possible Williams’ mistruths. In a statement, NBC News President Deborah Turness said Williams’ Iraq tale was “wrong and completely inappropriate for someone in Brian’s position.”

NBC Universal chief Steve Burke added: “...Brian has jeopardized the trust millions of Americans place in NBC News. His actions are inexcusable and this suspension is severe and appropriate.” Burke added: “He deserves a second chance and we are rooting for him.” The statement left wiggle room for Williams’ return.

NBC’s initial handling of the affair is a stark reminder that when facing a crisis the first 48 hours are crucial and may well determine the conclusion the public reaches about the totality of a certain situation, regardless of how the company or organization tries to make amends subsequently. Clearly, speed is of the essence.

CLEAN BREAK?

In the wake of Williams’ disclosure the reputation of NBC News has taken an enormous hit. It’s a bad day when the face of your brand, entrusted with telling the truth, is shown to have lied, and repeats the lie several times.

To regain the public’s trust, PR execs said, NBC News brass must over-communicate the findings of the investigation into Williams and disclose fully whether it has found other skeletons in the closet. [Williams’ reports from New Orleans in 2005 about Hurricane Katrina are being called into question.]

Steven Fink, president of Lexicon Communications Corp. and author of “Crisis Communications: The Definitive Guide to Managing the Message” (McGraw-Hill, 2013), said how NBC communicates the findings of its investigation is pivotal.

“It needs to do so in public, present the relevant findings and issue strong guidelines on what its news executives can and can’t do” when representing the brand, Fink said. “It needs to delineate the rules of engagement.”

NBC’s headache, including for its communications pros, could linger until NBC News names a successor. “Replacing the anchor sends a big signal that [NBC] is removing itself from the affair, which could come back in six months” should Williams be allowed to return to the anchor desk, Fink said.

He added that if NBC “is smart” it should divide its communications pros in two: one group should devise a strategy for letting Williams go permanently without NBC Nightly News taking a nosedive in the ratings; the other group should craft a plan to keep Williams with minimal fallout. “Each group then makes a marketing ‘pitch’ for its strategy to upper management,” Fink said.

What else should NBC PR pros do? “The focal point must be internal communications,” the TV network PR chief said. “Get your house in order and communicate it internally. You have a bunch of people at NBC News who are unsettled, morale is low. Internal communications has to take over now.” This person added, “Whatever you say internally expect to see it repeated externally, so you must have a clear message,” which NBC did with the suspension announcement. “You might even think about sharing messages with other parts of NBC, maybe sponsors. You don’t have to have every answer, but you need a vision and a plan to restore order.”

The Williams episode raises other questions for communicators, foremost among them is how best to control serious damage to brand reputation and financial health when a brand chief is caught in a lie.

“If this cascades and causes parent company Comcast’s stock to take a significant hit, then it’s a whole other ball game,” said Juda Engelmayer, senior VP and group director at 5W Public Relations. “Then the story moves from an anchor who violated the public trust to a company that may have known, hidden it and intentionally left it unchecked to protect a friend or its image. Disappointed shareholders are not as forgiving as entertainment and celebrity fans.” [Comcast shares dipped slightly below 56 on Feb 11, but rebounded and were at 59.2 Fri at 2pm ET.]

Other issues for communicators stemming from the Williams affair include the effect on PR when a company seems to value its revenue more than its reputation and standing with the public.

As with most corporate crises, perception rules, and the initial view was that NBC was more concerned with protecting its perch atop the network news ratings than getting to the bottom of what happened and why Williams seemed to go off the rails.

NBC generated $200 million in advertising sales for its evening news broadcast in 2013, compared with $170.6 million for ABC and $149.9 million for CBS, according to WPP’s Kantar Media.

CONTACT:

Juda Engelmayer, juda@5wpr.com; Steven Fink, sfink@lexiconcorp.com

 This article originally appeared in the February 16, 2015 issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.