Ratings & redemption: Expert on NBC’s handling of Brian Williams

A crisis communication expert says Brian Williams will likely be off the air for some time. But, much of it depends on ratings and redemption.

FILE - This Sept. 11, 2012 file image released by Starpix shows Brian Williams at the Cantor Fitzgerald Charity Day event in New York. NBC "NBC "Nightly News" anchor Williams has admitted he spread a false story about being on a helicopter that came under enemy fire while he was reporting in Iraq in 2003. Williams said on "Nightly News" on Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2015, he was in a helicopter following other aircraft, one of which was hit by ground fire. His helicopter was not hit. (AP Photo/Starpix, Andrew Toth, File)

EVANSTON, Ill. (MEDIA GENERAL) — Monday night, during the important February ratings period, NBC 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 Brian Williams did, including during Hurricane Katrina.

“Even in our jaded society, when you watch the news, you assume there is credibility,” said Northwestern University professor Irving Rein. 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 points out that there is never a perfect course of action during a crisis, he doesn’t think NBC did the best job here.

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

Rein believes the quality of the response was the issue.

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

Rein believes NBC didn’t move fast enough in this situation.

“I don’t think they moved quickly enough,” said Rein. “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.” Rein says it appeared NBC was blindsided by this.

NBC has two solutions

According to Rein, there are two options for NBC. Take Williams off the air, which has happened. The question then becomes for how long? And, what will he do to demonstrate he has credibility? The second is to fire him. That will 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 says NBC’s announcement that there was an internal investigation underway was not a surprise.

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

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 in tact. A lot depends on what he demonstrates,” said Rein. “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 says what happened here is not uncommon.

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

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