This Is How Brian Williams Should Handle His Credibility Crisis

Kimberly N. Alleyne

For the last few months, NBC has been running a great tribute package to celebrate Brian Williams’s 10 year anniversary as the anchor of NBC Nightly News. Each time I see the tribute, I think, “I can’t believe it’s been 10 years.” I still remember watching the program when Tom Brokaw was the anchor. In the 10 years since Williams has taken the throne, he has greeted viewers each evening with qualities that take [broadcast] journalists far: likability, good reporting and trust. Now two of those elements are in question. He’s still likable, but can viewers trust him to deliver a truthful story? And what about his reporting? Is it accurate, or is he forgetful about what actually happened in the course of his reporting?

Credibility by Ron Mader Flickr Creative Commons
Credibility by Ron Mader Flickr Creative Commons

Williams recently admitted that he “misremembered” being on board a U.S. Air Force helicopter that was struck by rockets in 2003 while reporting in Iraq. It’s a claim he has made for more than 10 years. The admission is troubling and disappointing, but I am not here to attack his integrity, but rather how he can move forward to regain the public’s trust. Williams is clearly in the midst of a PR crisis firestorm. How should he handle it?

1. Talk–Williams should get control of the crisis by talking about it. In this case he should dedicate a block of time to taping a detailed explanation (a genuine mea culpa) and a more weighty apology than what he offered here. Being mute is not the way to manage this. A crisis cannot be managed in silence; people want answers. Trust has been destroyed and the best way to repair the wound is to treat it so the healing can begin. Williams could very well choose the mute approach, and eventually the news would get old. Eventually; but viewers would remember. Always.

“I come in everyday and write the journalism that becomes NBC Nightly News along with my colleagues.”
Brian Williams,  in a 2006 interview with Michael Eisner, Got News

2. Be Absent–It is appropriate for Williams to be off the broadcast for a time, either voluntarily or by suspension. Williams and NBC should give viewers a moment to absorb the explanation and apology, and to breathe. If Williams steps away for a while, it will let help the story, the breach to “rest.” Unless details emerge that other stories that Williams has reported are also inaccurate, such as his Katrina reporting, a firing would be warranted. In this case, though, being out of the public’s view for a time will demonstrate Williams’s remorse, accountability and humility.
3. Get it right–This one is not hard. Simply report the story and tell it in truth. On average, each evening 9.3 million people choose NBC over ABC, CBS or any of the cable news shows to consume their dinner news. They deserve the truth. It’s really not that hard. Tell the right story and remember it correctly.

How do you think Williams should manage this crisis? Please leave a comment or send me a note at Kimberly at kimberlynalleyne.com

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