I am starting a new monthly blog entitled PR Gaffes of the Week that will look back at some of the bigger blunders taking place locally and nationally. The kinds of gaffes that give PR and crisis management consultants heart palpitations. The gaffes I feature will likely be more national than local, as I must be careful (as a crisis management firm myself) about what I say locally so I don’t make my own PR blunder and alienate any of the political and business leaders I respect and work with daily. I will also rank the gaffes on a scale of 1-10, with 1 being minor impact and we’ll forget about it shortly, and 10 being major impact with long-term, career-ending implications. Here are my top two PR Gaffes for the first week of February 2015:
Crisis Management at NBC: News Host Brian Williams Under Fire
Be careful what you wish for. NBC news anchor Brian Williams finds himself “under fire” and “dodging bullets” from a whole host of critics these days as he tries to recover from falsely claiming the helicopter he was in over Iraq in 2003 came under enemy fire and had to make an emergency landing. Not so, according to armed forces involved in the incident. Williams publicly apologized on air on Wednesday, February 4. In his apology, Williams said he was in a different helicopter and following behind the one that was fired upon and somehow he had inadvertently “conflated” the two. Now we’re hearing he was not behind the helicopter under fire but in a chopper a whole hour behind the incident. Hmmmm. The “fog of war” in Brian Williams’ mind must be REALLY, really foggy.
The day after Williams’ apology, I heard a segment on National Public Radio’s Here and Now in which host Jeremy Hobson asked Elizabeth Loftus, a professor of psychology at University of California, about the feasibility of someone “misremembering” an incident as important as being fired upon in a helicopter. Loftus said it was “absolutely possible.” Really? I literally laughed out loud when I heard this segment. A national broadcaster is caught lying about his wartime experiences and NPR blames the “fog of war?” I’m not a psychologist, but it seems that Here & Now must have had to work pretty hard to locate just the right expert to give just the right quote to fit their slant on the story. (And for the record, I am an NPR loyalist, but am often amazed at their interpretation of current events.)
News anchors and reporters should be above reproach when it comes to reporting the facts. Embellishing is frowned upon. “Misremembering” falsehoods is simply unacceptable. Media pundits and crisis management consultants are having a field day. On CNN’s “New Day,” host Chris Cuomo said that attributing the lie to “the fog of war” wasn’t acceptable and the Internet would “eat him alive.” Rem Rieder, a USA Today media columnist, wrote that it’s “hard to see how Williams gets past this, and how he survives as the face of NBC News.”
I predict that Brian Williams’ career on NBC News is over. It took Williams and NBC four days to realize he should be off the air, which is four days too long. My guess is that the decision-makers at NBC simply weren’t listening to the advice of their PR and crisis management consultants. Instead, the story mushroomed, forcing Williams to issue a statement on Saturday, February 7, in which said that “it has become painfully apparent to me that I am presently too much a part of the news, due to my actions.” NBC’s investigation into the Iraq helicopter incident and his 2005 coverage of Hurricane Katrina could turn up a whole host of additional misremembered incidents.
GAFFE GRADE: 10.
Brian Williams has broken our trust and for a journalist, that’s a career ender.
Wringing his Hands: Senator Thom Tillis’ First Foray into Crisis Management
Instead of washing his hands, US Senator Thom Tillis, R-NC, is most certainly wringing them these days over his PR gaffe in which he stated that the free market should decide whether restaurant workers should have to wash their hands prior to returning to work.
In an appearance before the Bipartisan Policy Center on February 2, Senator Tillis recounted a story from 2010 in which he was having coffee at Starbucks and discussing government regulations. He said ‘I don’t have any problem with Starbucks if they choose to opt out of this policy as long as they post a sign that says, ‘We don’t require our employees to wash their hands after leaving the restroom.’” He then added, “the market will take care of that.”
What may have started as an anecdote to make a point on the over-zealousness of government regulation turned into a gaffe that gained him early notoriety during his freshman year on the Hill and the dubious honor of being ridiculed on “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart. I bet his crisis management consultants didn’t think they’d have this much to do so early in his tenure.
Media Training Rule #1: Don’t use anecdotes or examples that make one queasy to the stomach or deal with personal hygiene in a place of business that serves food and beverage.
GAFFE GRADE: 3
It made national news, but it’s a blunder we’ll quickly wash our hands of.