Brian Williams and NBC News: What Does it Mean for PR Professionals?

By now, the Brian Williams/NBC News mess has been dissected by everyone who follows journalism, broadcasting or media celebrities. But I’ve yet to see anyone talk about what it means for PR professionals and the practice.

Yes, what Mr. Williams did was wrong. As I teach my PR students, the first rule in media relations is never lie to a reporter. And the first rule for the media should be never lie in their relations with us.

Call it a lie, call it an exaggeration, stretching the truth, or “misremembering” as Mr. Williams did, the fact is he told the same story of his heroism and derring-do while covering stories in Iraq in 2003 that just didn’t match the facts. He was out-ed for it and is now on a six-month suspension. Whether he’ll ever report for NBC News again is still an open question. I imagine NBC management (whose parent company, by the way, is Philadelphia’s own Comcast) is still struggling with what to do long-term. At the very least, it certainly didn’t help his credibility. According to a recent poll conducted by The Marketing Arm, his ranking dropped from 23rd most trustworthy person in the country, to 835, on par with the star of A&E’s “Duck Dynasty.”

The spotlight on him didn’t help his industry, either. A Gallup poll shows the public’s trust in the news media in steady decline. According to Gallup, from 1999 – 2014, the public’s trust in the mass media to report news fully, accurately and fairly dropped from 55 percent to 40 percent. And in 2014, only 18 percent (the lowest since 1993) of Americans said they had a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in television news, putting it next-to-last on a list of 16 institutions tested. Only Congress ranked lower (make of that what you will).

While newspaper and magazine readership, as well as TV news viewership has been going down due to a variety of factors, the fact remains a lot of Americans still depend on the mass media to get their news. Indeed, as it’s the only industry mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, the Founding Fathers certainly recognized its importance. But when you can’t trust it, what’s a populace to do? Rely on what’s posted on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter? Heck, Stephen Colbert’s gone and even Jon Stewart’s leaving The Daily Show, so that’s out.

So what can we do about it? Well, as citizens we can be more vocal in our demand the news media get it right first, then tell us about it.

And as PR professionals, we can help them do that.  If we want to help them build, maintain, or in some cases, re-build their credibility, it’s incumbent on us to be as accurate as humanely possible when we give them information so they get it right.  This may seem obvious to many, but as the pressure to get the client or organization’s story out rightnow in the fast-paced all-information, all-the-time landscape we operate in, corners still get cut.  Sadly, “spin” is still practiced in our profession.

And what’s the benefit to us?  By making sure the information is right before we hand it off to a reporter, we build our own credibility.  We become the trusted source, the reliable supplier of information, increasing the value of “earned media” vs. unearned (e.g., paid).  And we become more valued – and valuable – to those we represent.

As PR people, can we prevent people – even reporters – from making stuff up? No. But it’s our obligation and our duty to help our media brethren to do their job the right way. We all benefit.

Gregg Feistman is an associate professor of public relations in the Department of Strategic Communication at Temple University.  He has led the public relations sequence for the department since 2002.  He is the faculty advisor for both the PRSSA chapter (founded in 1969) at Temple and the student-run firm PRowl Public Relations.  He has a BA in Communications from Rowan University, received their Outstanding Alumni Award in 1993, and an MA in Communication from Marist College in Poughkeepsie, NY.  He received the Public Relations Society of America’s prestigious Anthony Fulginiti Award for Commitment to Education in 2010, The Department of Strategic Communication’s Outstanding Service Award in 2011, The School of Media and Communication’s Faculty Service Award in 2012, and the 2014 Temple University Outstanding Faculty Service Award. Contact Gregg via email at greggf@temple,edu.

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