In Crisis Management, Reputation

Retro news broadcast and microphone.There’s been entirely too much joy floating around about Brian Williams’ fall from grace.  Folks are either wagging their fingers, fashioning comedic spin-offs or looking for ways to newsjack the story for themselves.

Look, my job is building, enhancing and defending reputations, so I’m well aware that Brian Williams may have woven a tapestry of fudgings and exaggerations from which he will never recover.  His stature as a news anchor in a media landscape lacking in believability makes his fall all the more difficult to recover from.  We’ll allow a return to grace for a disgraced athlete or movie star because we don’t depend on them to do the right thing outside of their own elements.  But chances are someone who’s stock and trade is believability won’t come back for a long, long time.  And even then, I expect his new role will be on the speaking tour where he’ll join others making a living explaining the lessons they learned from their slip and fall.  And he’ll make a good living flagellating himself in public with his new-found knowledge and humility.

That said, why the heck, are so many people enjoying his descent so darned much?  Internet smart asses have Photo Shopped into pictures of President Kennedy’s fatal car ride in Dallas, onto the landing ship at Normandy and into the Last Supper.  Tweets with the hashtag #BrianWilliamsMemories  have joked that he blew up the Death Star, saved someone from a polar bear and flew with Wonder Woman in her invisible helicopter.  Photo Shopped pictures are circling the web with pictures of Williams reporting from the moon and riding shotgun with O.J. Simpson in his Ford Bronco.

And (as they say on QVC) “but wait there’s more.”  Some genius at the minor league Bridgeport Bluefish baseball team thought it would be cute to offer Williams a paid internship during his six month suspension (a move rightly disavowed by the team’s former co- owners as an “embarrassing and cheap shot” ).  And a joke about Williams being one of the original cast members of SNL even found its way into the show’s 40th anniversary show on Sunday night.

Why is the glee so palpable?  As a reputation manager, I think it’s a combination of three things. Icarus Syndrome; going against brand and DIY crisis management.

Let’s start with what I’m calling “The Icarus Syndrome.”  William’s flew too close to the publicity “sun” with his repeated appearances on entertainment shows.  You could find him everywhere: The David Letterman Show, 30 Rock, The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live (yes, he did host SNL in 2007).   One NBC executive told NPR media critic David Folkenflik  that Williams’ dream job was to take over “The Tonight Show.” Folkenflik  put it this way: … Brian Williams, let’s face it, loves the performative aspect of television, too.”   That executive also told Folkenflik that  “…it always seemed as though the 6:30 NBC nightly newscast was something of a distraction for Williams.”  That love of the spotlight also put him on thin ice with his predecessor, Tom Brokaw who has, over the years, become increasingly uncomfortable with Williams’ ballooning “Hollywood” persona.

Secondly, Williams went against brand.  In this case, the “brand” is Anchor Man.  Those of us who grew up using TV news as our window on the world want to believe these folks are the bastions of the truth.  None of us giggled when Walter Cronkite ended his newscast with “And that’s the way it is.” We truly believed that if Uncle Walt said it, it was “the way it is.”  Even Millennials, who’ve never seen a TV newscast on a TV, have inherited that ethos from their parents.  “He/She is behind that desk and anchoring (notice how darn solid that sounds?) the newscast.  He/She MUST be telling the truth,” is the way that one goes.  The truth is that if Dennis Rodman or Miley Cyrus came up with stories about being shot down in a war zone or seeing bodies floating past their hotel we’d say, “Ah, well, that’s just them being them.”  Because their brand is Entertainer.  Not News Anchor.

Thirdly, Williams thought he could handle the crisis himself.  Because of his position IN the media he mistakenly thought he knew what it takes to deal WITH the media.  That’s two different sides of the desk.  Think of it as “Paula Deen Syndrome.” When her crisis hit, she really believed that, as a member of the media, she knew how to manage the message on her own.   And we all know how that worked out for her.  Williams made the same mistake, undercutting his 6:30 p.m. on-air apology during his NBC Nightly Newscast with his own, hand-crafted mea culpa on Facebook before the broadcast.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m just as disgusted with Williams’ exaggerations and perhaps fabrications as anyone else.  What I’m wondering though, is why so many people are enjoying them so much?  Williams’ credibility is shot; his career’s about to take a drastic detour and all of us have become just a little more cynical.  I just think it’s time for folks to stop reveling in his fall from grace.  Surely people can do something more constructive with their Photo Shopping skills.  Right?

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