By Gerard Braud
Amid the media stories and lingering crisis surrounding Brian Williams, I will raise these questions.
1. Was the story true to the teller?
2. Would others on that mission recall events differently?
3. When you recall an event and tell that story, is it true to you, while others might recall it differently?
Je suis Brian! When I tell stories, they are true to my recalling, yet others who were there may tell a completely different story. The stories you tell are based on variables, such as the information given to you by others, information heard or overheard by you, and the potential for you to have misunderstood or misinterpreted what you heard. There are distractions. There is background noise. There are many variables.
I don’t know Brian Williams but I wish I did and I wish we could talk on the phone… both because of our shared backgrounds in journalism, and our backgrounds as speakers and storytellers. I also wish I could speak with him because of my background in managing crisis communications, which is needed in this case.
Another variable could be classified as the fishing variable. On the day you catch that two-pound bass, the fish is two pounds. The more the story is told, does a wee bit of embellishing happen as the fish grows to be a six-pound bass?
Embellishment is part of human nature.
And then there is the tribute factor. Williams was GIVING tribute to a soldier in his telling of the story. He was not trying to take credit for anything that, from my perspective, was self-serving.
There are two ironies at play here, which has turned this into a crisis.
Brian Williams sells credibility for a living and now his credibility is being called into question. Not only is his credibility on this story being questioned, but others are raising questions about a variety of past stories. As a former journalist, there is never a day where the world agrees with your telling of any story. A reporter should provide perspective without bias.
The media are obsessed with reporting things from social media. It is social media that has fanned the flames enough to turn this small story into a bigger story. This social media smoldering crisis has become a raging wild fire.
Akin to this are some lessons in crisis communications that each of us can apply in our professional lives and in the organizations where we work.
1) Brian Williams did the right thing to apologize quickly. It takes a big man to say I made a mistake and especially to do it on national television. He did it with class and the appropriate amount of humility and empathy. I’ve seen many media outlets make far more egregious errors and never offer a retraction, correction, or apology for errors and omissions.
2) Support from others who were there and can support your story is important. Some members of the military have come forward to back-up portions of the story told by Williams, but now some are questioning their recollection of their position.
3) If he has not done so already, Williams should personally call those who called him out to offer an apology and to listen to what they have to say. He must also listen for that which gives a clue as to the motivation of those who called him out. Were they truly offended? Were they angry and dealing with anger issues? Do they hate the media and hate Brian Williams? Is someone trying to gain their 15 minutes of fame? Is someone trying to sell a story or book? It is difficult in a crisis to communicate with your detractors if you don’t truly have insight as to their motives and emotions.
4) If Brian Williams plans to return to the air next Monday, then this Friday he should do an interview on the Today Show. At his side for the interview should be his detractors as well as the veterans who have come forward to support the essence of the story told by Williams.
5) NBC, as the employer, needs to issue a statement. It should neither be a statement that condemns him nor one that places him on a pedestal. The statement should express a degree of neutrality in supporting Williams for his decision to take time off away from the anchor desk so that he doesn’t detract from the news on which he reports.
I am concerned that it appears NBC and Brian Williams may take the same course of action that many corporations do, which is to hope this all blows over. As I tell my corporate clients, “Hope is not a crisis communications strategy.” Action is a strategy and swift action is the best strategy.
It is a common flaw that institutions and people focus on the problem. The focus should be not on the problem, but on the solution to the problem.
Will Williams recover from this?
In the grand scheme of things, the telling of the story reflected no bias. If there are errors and/or omissions, those did not affect the outcome of events nor did they cause physical or financial harm to others.
I don’t know all of the facts and don’t expect that anyone will know them all. I am, however, human and forgiving.
Je suis Brian.