Supposedly, it’s all over for Brian Williams, the top-rated NBC anchor who lost his job for being a Jon Lovitz-style serial exaggerator, proclaiming his chopper was shot with rocket-propelled grenades while covering the Iraq War.
Grenades. Yeah, that’s the ticket. Nearly died.
Compounding his mistake, he squandered his brand – trusted, reliable source of important information – by rolling the dice on a deceptive explanation. He came up snake-eyes, and the media croupier scraped up whatever residual goodwill was still on the table.
Even so, the six-month suspension from NBC is the best thing that could have happened to him. It gives him just the right amount of time to mount a comeback. The prediction here is that he will come back into public prominence, provided he does the following.
1. Go off the grid. This is a time to go dark. He needs to resist the temptation to explain himself to pals in the media and watch the story dribble out in a distorted fashion over the next six months. To paraphrase Joe Friday: Anything you say can and will be used against you in the court of public opinion. If you want to control the message, say it yourself – when the time is right.
2. Use the time for genuine reflection. He will be expected to come clean six months from now about why he made such preposterous claims. A prerequisite will be that he’s honest with himself first. An insincere statement of contrition six months from now will be sniffed out and ridiculed. Genuine remorse and promise to do right will be welcomed by a forgiving public. Offensive as his statements were, we’re not talking Al Capone here.
3. Apologize to the right people. Before he speaks to the general public, Williams needs to meet privately with the people who have criticized him the most. He should admit to the military personnel who accompanied him in Iraq that what he really conflated was his own life with tales of grandiose bravery. He also needs to get down to New Orleans and say how sorry he is that he overdramatized a great tragedy to advance himself. In both instances, he’ll need to speak carefully, since word of the meetings can be expected to leak.
4. Do something good. By most accounts, Williams is a decent person with an oversized ego. Once he goes public with his apology, the act of public good works (without NBC’s publicity department in tow) would help show some humility and common humanity. He should only select a cause for which he has some passion; otherwise, it will be seen as a cynical ploy.
Some years after Richard Nixon disgraced himself and the presidency with Watergate, I saw him at the Economic Club of Detroit. He was standing alone on the dais as the room filled with an overflow crowd to hear him speak. We spoke very briefly and I was struck by how the notoriously prickly politician seemed so much at ease. Nixon had rehabilitated himself as an author and even as a statesman by showing he cared about his country.
Williams has a much shorter distance back than Nixon. And, as Nixon himself said, “A man is not finished when he’s defeated. He’s finished when he quits.”
– Jon Pepper
Jon Pepper is co-founder and partner at Indelable, a strategic communications firm that helps companies with change management, employee engagement, competitive positioning, corporate citizenship and brand activation through stakeholder involvement.