Brian Williams Suspended: Layers of a Media Crisis for NBC & Williams

Brian-DailyBy Gerard Braud

Leave it to Jon Stewart to once again be the expert voice of reason in modern media. He clearly points out in this crisis that there is the “Brian Williams Anchorman” persona, and as I pointed out previously, the “Brian Williams Storyteller” persona at public events where he appears as a celebrity speaker or guest.

At question is the brand – credibility.

At stake is reputation – damaged.

At the heart of it – two layers. A crisis for Williams the journalist and a crisis for NBC, the corporation.

I think Williams did the right thing to apologize, as mentioned in my previous blog.

NBC, in imposing a six-month suspension without pay for Brian Williams, has created a scenario in which I do think Williams can recover. In other words, I would be surprised if he ever returns to the anchor desk at NBC Nightly News ever again. I would not be surprised to see Williams announce his resignation.

Crisis management requires finesse. A crisis response too little or too late is bad. A crisis response too large makes the crisis worse and creates a series of secondary crises.

Think of crisis management the way you might think of parenting – let the punishment fit the crime. If your child leaves their bike in the driveway behind the car, a proper response is to take away their bike. Taking away every toy they own would be too extreme.

The offenses by Williams appear to have been primarily in celebrity appearances. Hence, the proper vehicle for NBC would have been to prohibit the celebrity Brian Williams from making celebrity appearances. By making such an announcement, NBC could have focused on where the sins were committed, yet opened the door for redemption by putting Williams back on the air after his self-imposed one-week suspension. This announcement should have been combined with my previous suggestion that Williams appear on the Today Show Friday with some of the soldiers who called him out. Such an appearance would have put a punctuation mark on the crisis that defines its end.

NBC, by suspending Williams for six months will remove this story from the headlines quicker. However, the harsh penalty means that if they return Williams in six months, the story will regenerate.

My opinion is that NBC News went too far.

Likely, the only way Williams could return to the anchor desk is if the veterans who called him out for his errors rallied to his side to support him, asking NBC to return him to the air very soon. My crystal ball doesn’t see that happening, although I wish it would.

Je Suis Brian Williams

Jes suis  Brian Williams Gerard BraudBy 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.

Irony #1

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.

Irony #2
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.

Lance Renolds3) 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.

Three Media Training and Crisis Communications Tips for Doctors and Employers

By Gerard Braud


Click image to watch video

The current Ebola crisis has the media calling upon their medical experts to communicate about infected patients being flown to the United States for treatment.

Media training for this type of crisis requires you to have a plan for how your doctors and physicians will respond if they are called upon to talk with reporters. Every employer needs to be prepared to follow these same rules. When talking about the health of an employee or a patient, HIPPA rules – the Federal rules that govern patient privacy — essentially prohibit a doctor or employer from talking about the patient.

Yet the media want details; details a treating physician cannot give; details the employer cannot give.

The three secrets to an intelligent interview answer that satisfies the media are to:

1) Set the context of the situation

2) Politely admonish the reporter

3) Speak in generalities

An artful answer may look like this:

“First, we need to recognize that because of Federal laws governing a patient’s privacy, I’m not allowed to give any specifics about this patient and neither should the media. In general I can say that a patient with Ebola can be safely quarantined because the virus is not transmitted by breathing in the infection, but only by contact with blood or body fluids.”

The medical experts and reporters on the network news programs have done a brilliant job of walking this fine line when being interviewed by their networks and reporters. An increasing number of reporters are more aware of HIPPA rules, but many are not, while others try to trick the spokesperson into saying something.

Here is the key: The media need a good sound bite or quote. Write a good sound bite then train the spokesperson to deliver it in a masterful way to the media.

On the NBC Today Show Monday morning, the doctor spokesperson from Emory University Hospital, where the patient is being treated, does a good job of not violating the patient’s privacy. It is an interview worth watching.

If we dissect the interview a bit further, here are a few things to note:

NBC News anchor Savannah Guthrie states in her question, “I know that you can’t say much, if anything about the patient, under your care, but let me just try. Can you confirm that he is improving this morning?”

The doctor responds by saying, “I really can’t comment on the clinical condition of the patient. That comes specifically from the request of the patient and his family.”

The answer is an okay answer that doesn’t violate HIPPA. However, to a reporter and the audience, it may seem like something important is not being said or that the spokesperson or doctor is hiding something, when in fact they are just protecting the patient. Granted, doctors are not professional spokespeople, which is why they require extra media training when talking about a crisis like this. Granted, the doctor needs to be focused on the patient and not the media, which is why regular media training with doctors, when there is no crisis, is the best way to have them ready for a future crisis.

An abrupt answer like that is known as a “block.” A “block” is more acceptable when it is combined with a “bridge” and a “hook.” The bridge allows you to bridge to an acceptable answer and then hook the reporter and viewer with new information and a quote.

A better answer would follow my guidelines above and sounds like this:

“First, we need to recognize that because of Federal laws governing a patient’s privacy, I’m not allowed to give any specifics about this patient and neither should the media. In general I can say that a patient with Ebola can be safely quarantined because the virus is not transmitted by breathing in the infection, but only by contact with blood or body fluids. While I cannot comment on the prognosis or any progress about this patient, I can say that our institution is optimistic that we have the right facilities and right physicians to treat someone with Ebola, which is why the patient has been flown here from Africa.”

Using this technique, the doctor doesn’t just block the reporter’s question, but also bridges to useable information.

In the PR department at Emory, the media trainer and the PR team are likely calling this interview a success… and they should… and it is, because the doctor walked the fine line of HIPPA. But with a slight bit more training and practice, the doctor can be taught to use the full block-bridge-hook technique, for a more polished answer.

For all of you who must media train a spokesperson, realize that you can go from good to great with just a few minor adjustments in an answer. Regular media training goes a long way to make your spokespeople great.