By Hinda Mitchell
I’m a little late to the “Brian Willams” party, but I’ve spent the last few weeks giving some thought to the story as the world watched it unfold. Trusted journalist, household name, familiar face on our televisions….deceiver.
Without a doubt, it is markedly easier to “Monday Morning Quarterback” a crisis than it is to be in the middle of it. I’ve been in the middle of many, and, although, this was not one of them, I’ve come up with five ways I might have handled it differently.
- Brevity – Williams’ less than 300 word written apology left too much for critics, pundits, talk show hosts and competitors to pull apart. But pull apart they did – words, phrases and more – which only extended the story. (See below for how I might have crafted his response)
- The need for simplification – Not only the length of his apology, but the words that were used (think “conflate”) only added to the confusion and the fodder for those already amplifying this story. His response was as convoluted as the original story itself.
- Rip off the Band-Aid – As a crisis, this dragged on far longer than it should have. An alternative approach, where Williams issues a brief statement and then voluntarily takes himself out of the public eye, could have tightened this window significantly.
- NBC’s missed opportunity – NBC, in its delayed response, didn’t do itself or Williams any favors. By putting him on television after the crisis emerged and waiting to initiate its own investigation, it only kept the bleeding underway and expanded the opportunity for viewers to wonder whether or not NBC was complicit in the original fabrication. As a journalistic organization, they should have taken swift and decisive action; that’s what the public expects from respected news gatherers. Perhaps it would have been too soon, but immediate removal from the airwaves as a disciplinary measure would have helped draw the bright line.
- Finding common ground – We’ve all been a part of that childhood game of “telephone,” where you begin a story and it grows and changes as it is told around a circle one at a time. The story that starts often bears little resemblance to the story at the end of the circle. Or, we’ve all heard urban legends, where a story takes on a life of its own and often grows beyond the original truth. Drawing some parallels to things like this – places viewers might understand and find some common ground with Williams – might have tempered the criticism.
For what it’s worth, my proposed statement (about 100 words) from Williams would have looked more like this:
“Throughout my news career, I have worked to earn your trust, and recent events have led to legitimate concerns about my integrity. It is clear that over time and re-telling, the facts of my incident in Iraq were greatly exaggerated and thus were no longer true. My deepest apologies to the men and women of our military who feel disrespected by this situation. I take this matter seriously, and after careful reflection and discussion with my NBC family and my own family, I am taking a leave of absence from my position on the NBC Nightly News. Thank you for your understanding during this time.”
Would it have made a difference? Hard to say. Perhaps the situation unfolded exactly as it should have. Either way, it left as many questions as answers, and climbing the hill back to respect, trust and integrity may be a hill too difficult for Williams to crest.