How to avoid Brian Williams’ misstep

I have to admit: I have always liked Brian Williams. His manner as anchor of the NBC Nightly News was a steadfast at Tom Brokaw, and he made it his own with humor in his writing. In my opinion, his reporting seemed to be on target, and he seemed to care about the people and issues he was covering. But when he got caught in a lie in February, all of that unraveled to the point that I’m not sure what to think of Williams now. That’s one of the reasons I said then that I didn’t think his apology went far enough.

This is another example of the power of social media, as The New York Times reported Sunday. As we all know, it doesn’t take long for news like this to catch fire and go viral in this age of schadenfreude when people enjoy watching others, especially those in lofty positions, fall from grace.

Late last week, Today Show host Matt Lauer interviewed Williams, during which Williams took responsibility for his actions (too little too late, no?). The larger issue in my mind isn’t about social media or (finally) taking responsibility. When Williams appeared on late night talk shows like David Letterman, he was charming and self effacing. That made me like Williams even more than I did in his anchor job because it broke him out of the role as staid and serious anchorman. The thing is, he forgot that he wasn’t appearing just as Brian Williams on those shows. He was a representative of NBC News.

Thus, when he told lies and re-remembered events to fit an ego-driven storyline, he didn’t just hurt his credibility – it hurt the entire news network and even journalism itself. When I was a newspaper reporter years ago, I felt like I was working in public relations to a certain degree. I had a responsibility to whatever paper I worked for at the time. Every time I stepped out the newsroom, whether it was to cover breaking news, interview the Adams County Beef Queen (yes, the joys of being the agriculture reporter), covering a municipal government meeting or speaking to high school students about being a reporter, the way I carried myself was as much about the newspaper as it was me.

The same is true for any reporter today, regardless of the state of the media and what you might think of the changing landscape. It’s also true for any employee of any business or organization when addressing an audience (e.g. the media, customers, stakeholders, board members). You are still wearing that hat as a representative of your organization, and what you say and how you act needs to reflect that.

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