Why Brian Williams’ apology wasn’t enough

As parents, my wife and I are always looking for ways to teach our sons how to grow up to be respectable and respectful young men. So it was last year that my wife found some practical information about teaching kids how to apologize on iMom. I am reminded of it this week in light of the events that led the the 6-month unpaid suspension of NBC News managing editor and anchor Brian Williams.

In case you missed it, here’s a quick synopsis: Brian Williams made news this week for stretching the truth (tantamount to lying) about events that took place when he was covering the Iraq war in 2003. He was covering the delivery of bridge parts when a helicopter ahead of the Chinook in which Williams was a passenger was hit by a rocket propelled grenade. Over time, he began to say that it was his helicopter that was struck. On Friday, Jan. 30, it was repeated in another story, and veterans who were in Iraq said they did not remember that Williams was in that aircraft. For a detailed account of how Williams’ story evolved, I recommend this story from The New York Times.

Faced with criticism from veterans and the public, Williams did the right thing and apologized during his Feb. 4 NBC Nightly News broadcast.

From a public relations perspective, though, he missed the mark. While he did accept responsibility and sincerely expressed his apology, it didn’t go far enough. Listen closely to it, and you hear him apologize only to military men and women, “veterans everywhere who have served while I have not. I hope they know they have my greatest respect and, now, my apology.” That’s a problem because Williams sits in the anchor chair reporting the news to millions of people, the vast majority who are not military personnel or veterans. Don’t we deserve an apology, too?

From a PR strategy, it would have been the wise thing to do. It might not have stopped people from calling him a liar (after all, the memes about him are out of control), but all Williams has as a journalist is his credibility. To start winning that back, I would have advised him to add a statement apologizing to his entire audience. I don’t think that would have prevented his suspension because one does need to accept the consequences of bad decisions, but it would have put him on the right track.

Time will tell if Williams returns to the anchor desk. From media reports I heard today on NPR, if Lester Holt can maintain ratings and keep NBC as the top news program, the network might make the suspension permanent. But it could decide that Williams is worth the risk to try to bring the ratings back. Whatever happens, that’s a whole other PR issue to analyze in the future.