4 Lessons CEOs Can Learn From the Brian Williams Scandal

Honesty, transparency and integrity are key ingredients in any CEO’s reputation. Without them, he or she will surely fail.

And when an event comes to light such as that which was recently experienced by NBC Nightly News anchor and managing editor Brian Williams, it not only tarnishes the person, it can also tarnish the brand.

Williams was suspended for six months without pay recently amid escalating criticism that he had falsely claimed to have been in a helicopter that was hit by gunfire while covering the Iraq war. This inaccuracy also raised up a storm of questions about the accuracy of his reporting on other stories. That is a familiar tactic for CEOs—where the uncovering of one event leads to an embarrassing media firestorm from which there is no turning back.

“The CEO brand must be grounded in the facts of who they are and what they have done.”

Like fallen CEOs, Williams’ admission, and NBC’s hesitation in handling the situation, further damaged the news division’s credibility and reputation. The upheaval left the division in disarray, ratings in decline and some advertisers dropping out. This situation serves as an important reminder for CEOs that above all else, transparency and integrity reign supreme.

Here are 4 lessons CEOs can learn from Brian Williams’ fall from grace that can help prevent leaders from a similar fate.

  1. Contain the damage. Acknowledge your mistakes, apologize and repair the damage— quickly. According to Karen Leland, president of Sterling Marketing Group in the San Francisco Bay area, “We live in an age I call Microwave Media: consumers want their news hot and fast! If something negative surfaces, true or not, it’s essential for CEOs to respond right away. If they made a mistake, admit it, apologize, take responsibility, and present the correction plan—and do it fast. The speed at which social media operates requires fast and ruthless truth telling.”
  1. Exaggeration belies authenticity. Williams’ story shifted in each retelling, undermining his claim to authenticity. Leland says that CEOs must consciously not make who they are and what they have done sound like more than they are. “There is huge pressure in public media to be extraordinary, to be the hero CEO. The CEO brand must be grounded in the facts of who they are and what they have done. The narrative must be able to stand on its own as authentic, real and credible.”
  1. Be consistent. Todd Templin, executive vice president of PR Boardroom in Plantation, FL, reminds CEOs to live their core values every day. “You can’t do anything that will cause your employees or customers to question your credibility or it could end up hurting your reputation and bottom line. If you’re going to talk the talk, you have to walk the walk.”
  1. Repair your brand strategically. “A surprising number of CEOs let their brands happen by default,” says Leland. “They don’t have a long-term goal or short- term strategies for shaping their brand and putting it out in the world.”

Perhaps the best crisis management advice is also the most obvious. Today, with transparency being the glue for customer and shareholder loyalty, stick to the truth and don’t exaggerate.


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