The Brian Williams episode presents a major PR crisis for NBC television. But unlike other major PR crises of recent years, it’s not exactly clear who is the real victim of Brian Williams’ deception, other than Williams himself.
In 2010, when the BP/Deepwater Horizon disaster impacted millions and the Toyota safety issues affected thousands, it was obvious who was most damaged.
As the oil continued to pour into the Gulf that spring, crisis communications expert Alan Hilburg spoke at a PRSA/St. Louis luncheon. Hilburg made the point that organizations must quickly address the concerns of those who are victims of such events as the BP spill, rather than focus attention on the organization’s own needs.
In the interceding years, BP has paid billions to those affected by the disaster, but the company’s failure to address the situation in a timely manner caused irreparable harm.
In the case of Williams, his viewers may be disappointed in his actions but they will, for the most part, be likely to forgive this misstep. The military members who blew the whistle of Williams may be upset, but they, too, are likely to be forgiving. The reputation of the NBC News brand (and his fellow news department workers) may be damaged in the short term, but that can be overcome.
In the early 90s, NBC News survived the GMC truck crisis. The producers of Dateline admitted they rigged an explosion to produce footage designed to slam GMC trucks. Jane Pauley and Stone Phillips read an on-air apology to GM.
The big questions regarding Brian Willams are: Will he, after his current “time out,” issue a full-blown apology and own up to the fact that he lied? Will he be able to resume his duties without continuing to be the butt of jokes, as he has been for the last few days on social media. Also, would he be well-advised to limit his non-news TV appearances?
The main factor, of course, will be money. Should he return, can he maintain current viewer levels, resulting in good ad revenues? If he can’t rehab his reputation, would NBC owe him a huge severance? As broadcast reporters often say as the end of news packages, “only time will tell.”