Brian Williams and the Importance of Integrity in Communications

By Katy Penrod, Minerva Strategies –

In the past year, Brian Williams’s career as an NBC news anchor has fallen far, fast. This plummet is due to the fact that, over the past decade, Williams has been telling a continually-evolving story about his experience while reporting on the Iraq war in 2003.

In its most recent iteration, Williams claimed to have been onboard a helicopter that came under fire by a rocket-propelled grenade. In fact, as brought to light by others present on the scene, Williams was in a helicopter following about an hour behind the one hit by enemy fire. Williams was put on six month unpaid suspension from NBC beginning in February of this year. This month, NBC released a statement of Williams’s permanent leave and his new position at MSNBC.

Why such a seemingly harsh response from NBC?

Sure, Williams fibbed about the sequence of events back in 2003. And yes, what began as a small fib morphed over time into a blatant falsification. But was it cause for termination of employment, after all of his years of quality news coverage with NBC? I believe so, for the following reason: We know Williams lied about his experience in 2003, but how can we be sure he wasn’t “embellishing” the truth in his many years of prior news coverage? His credibility and entire career of reporting is being called into question because of this misstep. It is no wonder NBC does not want to keep him around, lest their credibility be tarnished as well.

Integrity as currency

In the communications field, from news anchoring to consulting, integrity is currency. It is the foundational element upon which all trust with audiences is built. If this currency loses value, there is no way to build transparent relationships with the public and no reason for them to want to engage with you. In fact, there is a glaring reason for them to avoid doing so: They cannot discern what is true and what is false, and thus have no guarantee that their investment will be worthwhile.

While communications often involves some form of “spinning” – presenting ideas in a specific way to reach a target audience and/or elicit a certain response – there is a significant difference between framing and falsifying. The former does not change the facts, but rather highlights aspects that are relevant given the situation and participants; the latter misrepresents information (either via omission or addition), effectively presenting a false depiction to the audience.

Williams falsified the story of his experience in Iraq in 2003 and is rightfully suffering the consequences.

To add insult to injury, Williams has denied his conscious choice to lie about his experience. He claims to have “conflated” two versions of the event in his mind, despite and in seeming ignorance of the fact that one of them is a complete fiction. It is the responsibility of firms within the communications industry, NBC and Minerva Strategies alike, to hold themselves to the highest standards of integrity and truth. After all, the foundation of the business is trust between communicator and client. This means not accepting any forms of deceit, from exaggeration to omission to so-called “conflation”, regardless of how well-known or liked the transgressor is.

Integrity is the currency of communications and it cannot be spent casually.