What should Brian Williams do to manage his crisis?

NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams is now enveloped in a career-threatening controversy after admitting Wednesday he was not aboard a helicopter that was hit by enemy fire in Iraq in 2003.

Williams repeatedly told the false story, but now says he misremembered the events. The admission came after crew members that were aboard the helicopter hit by rocket-propelled grenades said Williams was nowhere near the aircraft during the incident.

The evolution of his tale is quite damning. CNN has a timeline of how Williams changed the story over time to put himself in the center of the action.

What’s unclear is whether he purposefully lied (the overwhelming sentiment on Twitter is that he did) or whether he had a false memory of the event. Scoff at the latter if you wish, but there are scientific studies on how unreliable human memory is, particularly during dramatic events.

Even if the more charitable option (false memory) is correct, it suggests that Williams is an unreliable witness to major news events—which is, by itself, enough to seriously damage his credibility.

What should Williams do now in terms of crisis management? Some suggested owning up to the mistake would be sufficient:

However, would a longer explanation but no meaningful punishment be enough? Others said a suspension is warranted, and feel Williams could survive the blow:

Another person raised a good point that indicts other people within the news division: Where were the other journalists who knew William’s story was bull?

My judgment: NBC News, which has its lead anchor telling tall tales that made him the hero of his own story, must act. They should suspend Williams (or place him on a leave of absence) immediately. During that time, they should examine his other reporting to make sure this fabrication is truly an isolated incident.

A suspension isn’t only the right thing to do, but it may help Williams keep his anchor job. Other stories will quickly fill the news vacuum, and his absence will take at least some of the air out of this story.

Upon his return, Williams must provide a more credible explanation to viewers—one that doesn’t contain the glibness of yesterday’s insufficient on-air apology. Though doing so will resurrect the story and may lead to more negative headlines, the second telling won’t be accompanied by the same shock as yesterday’s revelation. Either way, it’s a necessary step.

[RELATED: Now is the time to visit your crisis plan, if you have one. Get prepared at our crisis communications conference.]

Some people are calling for his immediate resignation, and it’s possible Williams will be out. But I still view this as a survivable scandal; a damaged Brian Williams may still be preferable to NBC than an undamaged successor—although Lester Holt would be great at the job.

What do you think, PR Daily readers?

Brad Phillips is the founder and president of Phillips Media Relations. A version of this story originally appeared on the Mr. Media Training Blog

(Image via)


Popularity: This record has been viewed 11 times.
Ragan.com moderates comments and reserves the right to remove posts that are abusive or otherwise inappropriate.