The Banished Peacock – Lessons from Brian Williams Slide

By now, anyone with even a passing interest in American pop culture or the accuracy of her media will be aware that the country’s highest rating newscaster – NBC’s Brian Williams – has been suspended for six months due to his exaggerations and misstatements contained in reports about the Iraq War.

As the New York Times noted:

Mr. Williams has been drawing 9.3 million viewers a night, and his position seemed unassailable. Even as the stature of the nightly newscast faded in the face of real-time digital news, Mr. Williams was one of the most trusted names in America and commanded the respect accorded predecessors like Walter Cronkite, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings. But his embellishment of his helicopter journey and questions about his other reporting undermined the trust viewers placed in him.

So what exactly did he do? Back to the Grey Lady:

Mr. Williams’s downfall began when he appeared at a New York Rangers game with an Iraq veteran in a tribute to a retiring command sergeant major. Mr. Williams suggested on his newscast that the sergeant had protected him from a dangerous situation in Iraq, when “the helicopter we were traveling in was forced down after being hit by an R.P.G.,” referring to a rocket-propelled grenade. “Our traveling NBC News team was rescued, surrounded and kept alive by an armor mechanized platoon from the U.S. Army 3rd Infantry.”

The military publication Stars and Stripes was tipped off that Mr. Williams’s account was inaccurate and contacted Mr. Williams, who admitted that he was not on the helicopter that was forced down.

So what lessons can organisations take from this situation?

The first is what do you do when a product becomes contaminated?

What can they do when a product (which Williams ultimately is to NBC) loses the trust of its consumers?

The most obvious is to cut the product loose.  Stop the production line.  Apologise and say that you are never ever going there again.

Interestingly on a product where integrity is the core ingredient – no one wants to hear news purporting to be true when it isnt – this wasnt the approach that NBC took.

The Head of NBC Universal was quoted as saying:

“By his actions, Brian has jeopardized the trust millions of Americans place in NBC News,” Mr. Burke said in a statement. “His actions are inexcusable and this suspension is severe and appropriate.”

But they didn’t sack him.  It does make you wonder whether this was a commercial decision or a product integrity issue!

The second lesson / observation is – could this whole episode really have unfolded with only Williams knowing the truth?

Was he so senior that there were people within NBC that knew the truth that were either told to ignore it or self censored their actions and decided to look the other way?

It is this question that will be the ultimate challenge to NBC – did it have a culture of star protection or fact detection?


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