Now that NBC’s Brian Williams mess enters its second week, and public reaction seems to range from amusement to outrage, we see, once again, how no industry handles a PR crisis worse than the media business.
This is something we first pointed out two years ago. In this case, think about about this situation was handled. First, the highest-profile company spokesman is put on TV, within an hour of the story breaking, to talk about it. Two factors made this unsuccessful. First, the spokesperson was the subject of the story and second, he was woefully underprepared, using the term “misremembered” that may forever be associated with this ordeal. What a difference it would have made if NBC had bought itself some time.
Then, NBC failed to contain the crisis on Thursday and Friday by letting it spread and grow on multiple platforms while, by its relative silence, taking the “Frank Drebin Approach” to PR. The only thing the network announced is that it would handle an investigation about what happened internally, with one of its own journalists leading the investigation. A news organization, with its credibility under scrutiny because of the actions of its main anchor (and, importantly managing editor) decides someone else from its own ranks should investigate? How does that make sense?
Finally, on Saturday, Williams issued a statement saying he will take a leave of absence for “several days” because he was the subject of so much news, which had been the case for more than three days. What a mess. If this had been a corporation or government agency making so many PR missteps, you can bet NBC’s talk platforms would be filled with analysis and criticism.
This is a very challenging point for NBC News management, which is now an organization mired in multiple crises. Its longtime cash cow, “Today,” has slipped almost beyond recognition. Its nightly newscasts are watched by an increasingly elderly audience. Its cable unit, MSNBC, may need yet another remake. Its iconic “Meet The Press” lags behind rivals. Networks don’t have the anchor stables they once did by throwing cash at talent just to keep them away from other networks. Do they fire Brian Williams? Do they suspend him? Do they send him on an apology tour (which, if so, should include its hundreds of affiliates who are unwillingly dragged into this)? Whatever they do, a PR strategy should be paramount. We’ll soon find out if they have one.