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Faculty Viewpoints

Brian Williams Unanchored: A Path to Career Recovery

In a Fortune magazine op-ed, Professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld says that in order to make a comeback, NBC anchor Brian Williams will need to find a new, public mission.

  • Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld
    Senior Associate Dean for Leadership Studies & Lester Crown Professor in the Practice of Management

Originally published in Fortune on February 13, 2015.

Centuries ago, the town crier was an honest person employed by a village to reliably announce the news and make formal proclamations by shouting in the street. Legendary TV news anchors such as Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley, Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw, and Bob Schieffer filled that authoritative role in the American village square. The witty, well-liked Brian Williams seemed to follow in that tradition, until he was revealed to be moonlighting as the village storyteller, jeopardizing the public’s trust in NBC News.

Mark Twain famously reassured us, “The only bad press obituary.” However, does the recent career news for either NBC anchor Brian Williams—or even former Sony Pictures co-chairman Amy Pascal, who fell from grace in the wake of Sony’s email hacking fiasco—mark a professional obituary?

Several honorable media barons I spoke with in the last day have not been optimistic about the recovery of these once respected stars. There has been a noticeable absence of colleagues in the news business and show business rushing to defend Williams or Pascal.

Restoring trust

Thomas More warned “Character is fragile, like holding a liquid in your hands. Once your fingers separate, it is gone.” I have researched and published a great deal on the topic of career recovery of prominent figures in society, from politics, business, and the media. As long as they didn’t kill innocent people, as did Charles Manson, or steal other people’s money, as did Worldcom’s Bernie Ebbers, HealthSouth’s Richard Scrushy, or Tyco’s Dennis Kozlowski, comebacks are generally possible. There may yet be a path to recovery for these media icons—but the route may not be to their liking.

Williams, America’s leading news anchor, had enjoyed similar trust and popularity to what was bestowed on legends like Cronkite and Brinkley. Williams was suspended without pay for six months as a consequence of his admitted embellishments of his personal experiences in his combat reporting, exaggerating his role in a military helicopter in Iraq years ago. In addition, questions swirled around over what he actually observed on scene versus what he reported when covering the devastating destruction in New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina nine years ago. Although he was the standard bearer of NBC’s venerable news division, Williams’ credibility—his most valuable asset—plummeted.

Pascal lost her position two months after a hack attack on Sony’s email system revealed racist exchanges regarding President Obama and vitriolic battles with her fellow Tinseltown Titans. Before a meeting with the President, she suggested that he’d only be interested in films about African Americans. In fact, his actual favorite film last year was Boyhood, a portrait of a child coming of age in a fractured white family. Sony took too long to do the right thing, and Pascal lost her legitimacy at Sony.
Roads to recovery

The potential roads to recovery for Williams and Pascal are different. Pascal’s misconduct came in the form of a revelation of disturbing communications intended to be private. In Williams’ case, the misconduct was an alleged pattern of intentional mythmaking from his highly public perch. Also, while the media world is undergoing an uncomfortable convergence these days, standards of journalism are still different from those of entertainment.

The waters will wash over and forget Pascal’s transgressions if she immediately immerses herself in new filmmaking missions. In fact, Pascal has already landed a four-year production deal to develop some of Sony’s most anticipated movies. Alan Hirschfield was fired as CEO of Columbia pictures in 1978 for refusing to reinstate David Begelman, a studio executive convicted of embezzlement. Amazingly, Begelman, after he was fired later on, became chairman of MGM, where he continued his fraudulent financial schemes. Hirschfield resurfaced as chairman of 20th Century Fox.
Such resilience is rare in journalism. Long-term CBS anchor Dan Rather had to step down in 2005 after controversy regarding his reckless treatment of the facts on President George W. Bush’s military service. Janet Cooke of the Washington Post was fired and returned her Pulitzer Prize in 1981 when her celebrated reporting was found, like her education credentials, to be her own invention. Foster Winans, author of the Wall Street Journal’s “Heard on the Street” column, was fired and imprisoned for inside trading in 1985. The news careers of Cooke and Winans ended with their misconduct.
Does this mean that Brian Williams is “finished”? Not necessarily. How do we explain the recovery of radio personality Don Imus after being fired for uttering racial slurs on air, not to mention the MSNBC welcome of the popular former Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle following allegations of plagiarism and falsification in his reports?

To recover, Williams will need to focus on the following priorities.

Fight not flight

While going on a Comcast-imposed six-month hiatus, Williams must not slide into a cave. While it does look like NBC is distancing itself from him, Williams should not disappear. In his world, someone can become last year’s model very quickly. Williams should find opportunities to engage in significant public discourse, now free of his contract limitations to limit his appearances to NBC. Perhaps he should become an advocate for wounded warriors to restore goodwill with soldiers since he rode on the coattails of courage in battle?

Engage others in battle

The fact that Williams has not received much, if any, defense from his peers is not surprising. Even Tom Brokaw declined to come to the aid of his successor. As Harry Truman once warned, “If you want a friend in life, get a dog.” However, Williams needs the credibility of peers to help regain his standing. The recently deceased John Whitehead of Goldman Sachs courageously raced to defend AIG’s Maurice Greenberg in a Wall Street Journal column, which was the first to attack the integrity of now scandalized New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer.
Contrition or exoneration

Too often, CEOs and celebrities qualify their half-hearted apologies. If you are truly remorseful, show it, as JetBlue founder David Neeleman did. On Valentine’s Day 2007, the airline trapped many fliers on the tarmac for hours due to weather-related operations failures. Neeleman took the heat for his absentee COO and set a national record for in-person broadcast media apologies in a single day, as well as fixing the system and providing reparations.

By contrast, if you have done nothing wrong, go to the mountain tops demanding exoneration. Former AIG chairman Maurice Greenberg soldiered on with a series of legal victories against the misguided prosecutorial actions and government intervention that felled him.

Reaffirm competence

Sandler O’Neill lost a third of its workforce during the September 11 attacks. Jimmy Dunne, who was third in the succession chain, never expected to serve as CEO. Dunne rebuilt the firm, ensuring that the company supported the families of victims, pooling resources of the survivors, rallying his traumatized team, and reassuring clients. He also went before the media to correct erroneous reports that the company had folded. Dunne inspired his team with the competence, integrity, spirit, and courage that showed a commitment to recovery. The firm is now four times the size it was before the 9/11 tragedy.

Define a new mission

Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton plunged themselves into heroic global service causes after their presidencies, changing the ways their careers had been framed. Jamie Dimon did not lick his wounds after being fired at Citigroup in a political brushfire with his chairman Sandy Weill. Instead, he went on to turn around Bank One and then became CEO of JPMorgan Chase. Alcoa’s CEO Klaus Kleinfeld and J. Crew’s Mickey Drexler immersed themselves in their current, triumphant leadership roles instead of grieving injustices from board politics at past employers.
It is important to not define yourself by past setbacks but to chart a new mission. Jon Stewart’s exit offers a new path. The night before announcing his retirement as host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, Stewart asked in anguish and humor about Williams’ stumble: “Bri—why, Bri? Why lie, Bri? Sigh. If there’s more, bye bye Bri!”
Stewart diagnosed Williams with “infotainment confusion syndrome.” Perhaps Williams should be Stewart’s successor. In fact, a move to humor and entertainment is where Williams’ interests have migrated, as he chased appearances on late night TV shows and sitcoms. Not only is he quick and witty, but, according to New York magazine, he enthusiastically campaigned to succeed Jay Leno as the host of The Tonight Show. And, in fact, Stewart’s position as the anchor of a fake news show pays three times what Williams has made delivering real news.

Department: Faculty Viewpoints