Tuning in to “NBC Nightly News” on Wednesday, it was clear that NBC execs were moving swiftly ahead for a post-Brian Williams era. Noticeably absent from the opening title sequence was the name of the embattled anchor and former managing editor who was suspended Tuesday by NBC brass for six months without pay for embellishments he made while reporting on the Iraq War in 2003.
Once the most trusted name in network news, Williams’ credibility has taken a nosedivesince admitting last week he “misremembered” the events told on the January 30 broadcast about being aboard an aircraft hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, (RPG) a story he’d repeated countless times. A tribute by NBC prior to Williams’ truth-challenged broadcast celebrating his tenure with the network has suddenly disappeared from the airwaves, instead replaced by an internal investigation that has uncovered other instances of Williams’ exaggerations.
Watching Williams‘ downfall over the past two weeks has elicited a series of responses. While the debate over Williams’ future intensifies, some have come to his defense, including Time, Huffington Post, and famed warlock Charlie Sheen, who called the whole thing nothing but a witch hunt. Still others remain convinced that having eroded the public’s trust virtually overnight, his suspension is merely the beginning of an exit strategy and a return to the anchor chair later this summer is near impossible. In addition to spawning a series of memes, and inspiring the #BrianWilliamsMisremembers hashtag on Twitter, the Double-A affiliate of the Cleveland Indians—the Akron RubberDucks—announced plans to host a Brian Williams “Pants on Fire” night in April.
Indeed Williams’ actions have forced NBC into crisis mode as they scramble to limit the damage done by their once star anchor. After 10 years at the helm of “NBC Nightly News,” weekend anchor Lester Holt is currently assuming Williams’ duties and may be doing more than simply keeping the seat warm if he can prove to be a ratings success.
With six months of free time and $5 million less in his pocket, Williams has a lot of time to think about how he can begin to win back the trust of the American people, only 34% of whom find him credible. A recent survey by The Marketing Arm shows Kate Middleton has more credibility among Americans than Williams at the moment. He may very well be fighting for his career and reputation once the suspension concludes, but if the beleaguered newsman intends on returning to life behind the anchor desk, the seeds must be planted now.
Here are three things Williams should do during his time off if he wants to reclaim the anchor chair this summer:
1). Apologize to the public: Following the outcry after Williams first reported to have been in an aircraft hit by an RPG, Williams went on air and issued a half-baked apologythat was clearly written and vetted by NBC in an attempt to save himself and the network further embarrassment. The challenge with carefully crafted apologies such as this is that they fail to come off as sincere. When Williams returns, his effort to rebuild public trust with the nearly 9 million people who invited him into their homes on a nightly basis must begin with a sincere apology for his missteps without attempting justify his actions. Williams simply must fall on his sword. A heartfelt apology with no PR buzzwords to set off the alarms will go a long way.
2). Volunteer with veterans: Williams got himself in trouble by exaggerating his involvement covering the Iraq War, and quite possibly lied about his involvement with SEAL Team Six. He needs to show contrition to the men and women of our military whose sacrifice he has trivialized by making himself unnecessarily part of the story for the benefit of ratings and sensationalism. His apology should be done with no fanfare and completely under the radar; no camera crew looking for a photo op or b-roll. This isn’t about Williams at all. If Williams wants to talk about the experience down the line once he’s reestablished himself, he should feel free to do so. He’ll find that the story will get told in much the same way this most recent one exposed him, by the people who were there who want the record reflected accurately.
3). Stay out of the public eye: Those close to Williams describe him as being wrought with remorse since the controversy broke, and he may be. But he should not find it necessary to unburden his soul like so many disgraced public figures before him by committing to a round of public appearances, press conferences and talk shows confessing his deepest personal and/or journalistic sins. As challenging as it may be for someone who has spent his career talking (and entertaining) for a living, he’s going to have to lay low for a while and assess the damage. Then he can decide what direction he wants his career to go. Maybe he’d prefer taking over “The Daily Show” from a departing Jon Stewart, where news and entertainment blend together.
If NBC Universal CEO Steve Burke truly believes Williams deserves another chance and the network is pulling for him, then the beginning of rehabilitating his public image starts now.