Brian Williams Shut Down After Claiming He Was Shot Down

NBC News’ Brian Williams was forced to make a public apology today after network footage aired last week claimed that the anchor had been on a helicopter that was shot down by enemy fire in Iraq in 2003. In fact, Williams was on a helicopter that had been following behind the crippled aircraft and landed safely.

Williams also recounted the incident in vivid detail in an interview with David Letterman in 2013, in which he resoundly praised Army personnel for helping to keep him and the news crew safe after the helicopter was fired upon.

By altering the facts, Williams quickly became the fabled emperor caught wearing no clothes.

While Williams hemperors-new-clothesad been sharing the story as a way to highlight and thank military personnel, who have been on the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan, for their bravery and service, by altering the facts, Williams quickly became the fabled emperor caught wearing no clothes.

That a noted anchor who also serves as the Managing Editor of a major news network which prides itself on the accuracy of its reporting embellished upon the truth makes the situation even more complicated. But regardless of what industry you work in, altering the facts, even a little, to make yourself or your company appear more compelling or appealing will erode the trust you have worked so hard to build with your clients or customers.

By shooting and airing footage of Williams and U.S. Army Command Sergeant Major Tim Terpak, the head of the armored mechanized platoon who supported and protected the news crew while they were embedded in Iraq, including allegedly rescuing Williams after the crippled copter was shot down in enemy territory, attending a New York Rangers game as Williams’ guest, NBC News hoped to win the hearts and minds of its many viewers. Even if never formally articulated (as an outside observer, I have no idea on whether or not that was the case), its communications goals were clear:

  • one, to show what lengths NBC reporters would go to secure an important news story by recounting a dangerous and harrowing situation in which its top journalist and camera crew “risked life and limb” and
  • two, to further bolster Williams’ reputation and standing among news viewers by demonstrating that he is a “nice guy” who cares about and truly appreciates the courage and dedication of our US soldiers

Dozens of journalists do risk their lives every day to get an important story that they feel the public deserves to know, and Williams certainly is perceived as both likeable and trustworthy by NBC News’ viewers or he would never have been made anchor in the first place, so the network’s communication goals here were relatively modest and should have easily been met. Except, and this is a big except, that Williams, and therefore NBC, failed to tell the truth, and in so doing violated one of PR’s core tenets: content must always be well-dressed. Whatever the message you wish to convey about yourself or your organization must not only be accurate, but also must be able to stand up to the scrutiny of your various publics.

There is no doubt that the piece NBC News aired and then posted to Facebook has indeed sparked a dialogue with its constituents, which any PR initiative must do to succeed. Unfortunately, because of the inaccuracy of the information disseminated, the dialogue turned negative and forced NBC and Williams on the defensive.

Williams rightfully apologized for the error, stating that the soldiers on the downed helicopter who challenged him on the veracity of the story were “absolutely right” and he was “wrong.” He further claimed that “constant viewing of the video showing me inspecting the impact area” after the incident, “and the fog of memory over 12 years—made me conflate the two, and I apologize.”

While it remains to be seen what impact, if any, both the conflation and the apology will have on Williams and the network long term, in general, most customers are fairly forgiving, as long as they perceive that the executive who made the error is truly contrite and did not deliberately intend to mislead or cause harm.

However, the situation should serve as a powerful lesson to company executives that even when seeking to highlight what you view as a win-win situation for both your company and your target audience, be sure any information you share publicly is 100% accurate.

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