Here's a fun fact: In an online survey conducted by the PewResearch Center in August, only 27 percent of people could recognize Brian Williams from his photo. I'll bet, if that study were conducted again, far more people would be able to come up with Williams's name when they saw his smiling face.
And that's not a good thing.
The scandal that started with an episode of "misremembering" may end up costing this news anchor his job, and many are questioning both his integrity as a reporter and his ability to lead a team. His reputation is in tatters.
But his story doesn't have to end here. In fact, with a little work, Williams could come back bigger and better than ever before. It may not be easy, and a full reputation recovery may not happen quickly, but people can and do bounce back from problems like this.
Here are 10 concrete steps I'd suggest for the Williams team. If he follows this plan to the letter, he'll be on the right path to a full recovery.
1. Accept punishment.
This one might be easy for Williams, as he was recently put on an unpaid six-month suspension by his bosses, sources say. Punishments like this can seem harsh, and I'd imagine that they're hard to handle financially, but they can be really good reputation management tools.
That's because people like to see wrongdoers punished for their crimes. Nothing galls the masses more than seeing someone do something wrong and then get away with it. If some kind of punishment is handed down, and the wrongdoer accepts that punishment with grace, it can be a good first step toward recovery. It means that the person in question is being asked to pay, and the person being punished accepts responsibility. That's all good.
2. Give a real apology.
The announcement of the punishment gives Williams an excellent opportunity to make a real apology.
Yes, I know he has spoken up and expressed some guilt in the past. But, according to news coverage of that apology, it wasn't well received. For starters, Williams spent a great deal of time discussing his motivations for distorting the truth. And to add insult to injury, the statement also made light of the mistake. People just didn't think he had enough remorse.
In an announcement about the suspension, Williams could write a thoughtful apology that begins with the words, "I am sorry," and contains more words of remorse.
3. Look for other mistakes.
While the biggie about the chopper was enough to get Williams in hot water, he's also been accused of other distortions involving time spent during Hurricane Katrina.
It's important to remember that a reputation crisis can escalate with each new event that's uncovered by a third party. And you can bet that there are scores of people out there looking for things to bust Williams on.
The Williams team should beat the scouts to the punch by looking for yet more examples of misremembering and exaggeration. Honesty is the best policy here. Each time an exaggeration is found, the team should note it and/or issue a statement about it. The idea is to get all of the dirt out in the public right now, and control how the data is released. That means no dirty bombs in the future.
4. Lay low.
When the Williams team has disclosed all of the dirt, and Williams himself has issued an apology, he should lie low. That means he should skip interviews and stay away from social media sites altogether.
It sounds counterintuitive, I know, but when a scandal is this big and this public, it pays to let the issue settle. Anytime he makes a statement or does a media blitz, he invites commentary and he encourages reporters to tell the backstory of his disgrace. That keeps the issue in the public eye for much longer than it should stay there. If he's silent, the news will (eventually) fade into the background.
Anthony Wiener is an excellent case study of the success of this idea. When he was disgraced with sexting messages, he dropped out of public life altogether, according to an interview he gave to the The New York Times. He didn't give speeches, he didn't make public statements, and he didn't attend gala functions. He stayed home with his family. It was a smart move.
5. Find a way to give back.
So what can Williams do in his spare time? He might consider donating to veteran's groups or donating his time to such groups (if he can do so in a low-profile way). Why these groups, you might ask? Because they seem to be the wronged party here.
News coverage suggests that Williams is under such intense fire for the helicopter story because he was somehow disrespecting veterans by accepting praise for something they do every single day. Spotting the people who are truly harmed by your statements or your actions is key to a reputation recovery. Williams should learn more about this group and try to help them. It, again, shows contrition and it could be important down the line (plus it's just a nice thing to do, and people appreciate actions like that).
6. Be patient.
It's a sad fact that a reputation can be ruined in minutes, but take months to recover. There's no way to rush things when the gaffe is this big and this public. Williams will need to resist the urge to leap back into the spotlight before the dust has really settled.
Bill Cosby is an example of what not to do in this regard. After coming under fire for alleged rapes, he unveiled a social media campaign in which people could put statements on his photos. I'll bet you can imagine what most of these statements were about. And did they help his reputation? No, they really did not. Sometimes staying quiet is the best defense.
7. Test the waters.
With a few months of volunteering, cleanup, and quiet reflection, Williams might be able to head back into the public spotlight. After all, in the midst of the crisis, some media experts suggested that he could come back with a rebranding as a blogger or as an analyst. If people felt that way about him in the direct aftermath of the revelations, they might be even more forgiving when a few months have passed.
Williams might test his acceptability by writing a few guest blogs on choice media outlets. Or, he might be a guest on a television show on which he gives his take on a news item. Then, he could watch the reactions to his work. If it causes a flurry of anger, it's too soon. If it is well received, he's in good shape.
8. Find a new outlet.
Williams is likely to lose some things he values as a result of this problem, and that's common among people who have serious reputation management snafus. For example, he might never be able to report on things happening with the military without having his ethics called into question. His mistake is just too big and too public to allow him to go back into that sphere.
But there may be related areas he could venture in to. For example, he might consider a career as a political analyst, covering public disgraces. Or, he might consider doing color commentary on how the news is reported. These subtle shifts allow him to keep working, without making him work in exactly the same field. That happens all the time. When bankers become leaders of nonprofits, when bakers move into hostess roles, when hairdressers become makeup artists, that's a shift that allows for continued work with fewer reputation overlaps. It's a smart move.
9. Be prepared for endless backlash.
When problems are this big, people don't ever completely forget. Williams should be prepared to field questions on this particular issue for the rest of his life, and each time he's asked, he should handle the question with grace. The mistake is a part of his DNA, and he'll need to find a way to handle that.
10. Keep it clean for good.
Finally, Williams will need to be absolutely sure that he never makes the same kind of mistake again. Building up a great reputation after a big problem like this just isn't easy, and he'll need to make sure he doesn't torpedo everything he worked for.
Think of Weiner again. After all of that hard work and all of the sweat equity, he continues to engage in the bad behavior by "favoriting" sexy photos of women online. That's the kiss of death. People want you to learn. You just can't keep doing the same things over and over again.
So, did I miss anything? What else might you recommend for Williams? Tell me in the comments section.