Ratings & redemption: NBC’s handling of Brian Williams

This image released by NBC shows NBC News anchor Brian Williams during election night coverage early Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012 in New York's Rockefeller Plaza.

EVANSTON, Ill. (MEDIA GENERAL) – Monday night, during the important February ratings period, NBC’s “Nightly News with Brian Williams” will be without Brian Williams.

The popular evening anchor announced Saturday he would take himself off the air for an indefinite period of time. The self-imposed time away comes after Williams lied about being aboard a helicopter over Iraq hit by enemy gunfire. It also comes at the same time NBC promises an internal investigation into what happened, and more questions are being raised about other reporting Williams did, including during Hurricane Katrina.

Lester Holt, who is standing in for Williams, said the following Monday night on “Nightly News:”

“We want to take just a moment to tell you where Brian is. In a message to his colleagues over the weekend, Brian told us he’s taking several days off this broadcast amid questions over how he recalled certain stories he covered. In a career spent covering the news, Brian told us its clear he’s become too much a part of the news, and will be off while this issue is dealt with,” Holt reported.

“Even in our jaded society, when you watch the news, you assume there is credibility,” Northwestern University professor Irving Rein said.

Rein is in his 46th year teaching at Northwestern. He specializes in crisis communication and recently published “The Sports Strategist” with a major chapter on communicating during a crisis.

NBC’S CRISIS COMMUNICATION GRADE IS LOW

While Rein pointed out that there is never a perfect course of action during a crisis, he doesn’t think NBC did the best job in the Williams case.

“I wouldn’t give them very high grades for this,” Rein said.

He said the quality of the response was the problem.

“His apology was not very clear. It was vague, phrased in a way that was not really an apology. That was a mistake,” he said.

Rein also said he thinks NBC didn’t move fast enough.

“The first law of crisis communication is: Don’t do it. The second law is: Monitor it early and try to take action so it doesn’t develop into the big brouhaha we have now,” he said.

Rein said it appeared NBC was blindsided by the controversy.

NBC HAS TWO OPTIONS

According to Rein, there are two options for NBC. The first: Take Williams off the air, which has happened. The question then becomes how long he should stay away and what he should do to demonstrate he has credibility.

The second option is to fire him. That would result in a huge financial problem for NBC.

“His character is at play here. They (NBC) are trying to save their brand,” Rein said. “If it was me, I’d tell them to take him off the air, absorb some loss temporarily and look to restore credibility.”

Rein said NBC’s announcement that there was an internal investigation underway was not a surprise.

“They didn’t have a lot of choices. An internal investigation is standard course. You need to find the facts out,” he said.

WHAT’S HAPPENING BEHIND THE SCENES AT NBC?

Rein is not involved in advising or making decisions at NBC, but he has some ideas about what may be going on behind the scenes right now. He suggests it took a week once the scandal broke for Williams to go off the air because NBC was watching ratings to see if they held.

On Friday, ABC News beat NBC’s “Nightly News” in the ratings. Williams’ announcement he was going off the air came Saturday.

“I think they are trying to figure out what they can do with their iconic figure,” Rein said. “Ultimately, he will be off the air for quite some time. The question is: If he comes back, will he have the same credibility?”

WILLIAMS’ SEARCH FOR REDEMPTION

According to Rein, NBC has to figure out a way to restore credibility to Williams by having him deliver an account of what happened that allows for redemption.

“The public loves the story of redemption,” Rein said. “The public is enamored with that.”

Rein thinks it is still possible for Williams to remain at NBC.

“It’s possible for him to stay intact. A lot depends on what he demonstrates. Ultimately, down the road, he’ll be speaking about this and discussing what happened and we’ll see if the public will buy it. That’s hard to predict,” Rein said.

Rein said what happened here is not uncommon:

“I often see poor anticipation of the downside. No one wants to deliver bad news.”

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