By Mary C. Long, Chief Ghost, Digital Media Ghost
The real conversation isn’t around whether Brian Williams “misremembered” (of course he didn’t) – it’s about accepting blame. And it offers some lessons anyone could benefit from in this age of online egos, particularly whoever advised Williams otherwise.
When PR nightmares start to take shape, the default response today (as it has been for years before the internet came to be) is to distance oneself from the controversy. Trouble is, unless one is entirely free from guilt of ANY kind, distance is impossible. And honestly, distance is just impossible in general. Even if you did nothing wrong in this instance, once a story starts to take hold, someone with too much time on his/her hands will dig up something about you. And even if there’s nothing to find, just knowing they’re pawing through your online footprint searching for something is disconcerting.
The only way to head off the horror the Internet promises to unleash is to own the conversation immediately. And the only way to do that is to be blatantly, embarrassingly honest about your mistake. Attempting to defend yourself or framing a counter-attack instead of an admission of idiocy is not only risky, it’s a fairly masochistic choice.
Williams, a news anchor tasked with telling the truth (about seriously important events) is screwed any way you slice it and will certainly be fired in the next few days – but he could have quelled the hell fury a bit had he taken THIS route instead of his “conflating” nonsense:
“I started out telling the truth about what happened that day – and then one time I stupidly exaggerated what happened. And then instead of scaling it back, I repeated the exaggeration again. And after I did it many times, it felt like the truth, rolling off my tongue as naturally as the truth would – though I certainly always knew that it wasn’t. I didn’t have any pangs of guilt over lying because I let my ego take over and I liked the attention. I exaggerated my story and it morphed into a big lie that I repeatedly shared and I’m sorry for it. And terribly embarrassed. I apologize for offending those who serve and those you really have come under enemy fire – and I hope they can forgive my entirely stupid, ego-driven and repeated mistake. It’s a doozy and one I’ll be paying for, if that’s any consolation.”
Are you thinking that statement sounds crazy? Wondering how it would have possibly helped? I’ll clarify:
We’re now seeing reports that Williams is apparently a serial exaggerator. He exudes confidence, as any good public speaker/news anchor should, and he’s just as confident reporting news as he is when he’s making up stories – sharing both with that same confident flourish.
This latest series of exaggerations are ridiculously over-the-top. During Hurricane Katrina, Williams claims to have seen bodies floating by in an area that wasn’t very flooded and that he was saved from a hotel overrun with gangs – and more (read it here). At this point, he could claim to have some pathological liar disease and seek treatment. Actually, he probably should – and will!
But back to my thinking behind the statement I’d suggested above: Admitting his humanity (everyone exaggerates at some point, it’s human) would have made this latest exaggeration – and the others that will undoubtedly come to light – just another instance of Williams being imperfect Williams.
Instead, it’s another proof point to shut down any “conflated” true believers (and yes, those folks exist) and another incentive for reporters to gleefully seek out additional times when Williams was less than honest. You can bet money there are many, many people combing over his news reports right now and doubt will be cast on many stories.
And this scrutiny will extend to others. We’re already seeing Hillary Clinton’s similar false claims around being “under sniper fire” brought back to life (and rightfully so). Who will be next?
And what about those innocent folks I mentioned – people with nothing to confess who are unfairly and relentlessly attacked for something regardless? Should they accept blame as well?
Crafting one – and only one – carefully worded, brief statement sharing their position around the matter is appropriate.
After that, they should temporarily unpublish their websites and social sites, set filters on their email accounts and avoid any conversations about the topic – particularly on blogs and taking particular care to avoid blog/social media comments (one should never read comments on salacious stories anyway, as they’re the cesspool of the internet, but that’s a post for another day).
How do you think Williams should have responded? And does anyone else think he should throw his PR person under the bus for the most horrible advice ever with that “conflated” bit?