Counselor Commentary: The Business Of Integrity

Business Lessons From The Brian Williams Fallout

Andy CohenSomebody in the news business – just like a salesperson or company in any business – has nothing if they don’t have integrity. If they can’t be trusted with the information that’s coming out of their mouth, then really what purpose do they serve at all?

Such was the question that NBC News was struggling with this week, after it was revealed that its nightly news anchor, Brian Williams, had for years perpetuated a lie about being in a helicopter that was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) during the Iraq war. It never actually happened, despite Williams telling the tale many times during the news broadcast – as well as in other media – of how it occurred. Last week, after a social media firestorm had begun and media outlets began believing military members who have insisted for years that Williams had fabricated the story, he finally delivered a very short mea-culpa on the air saying that he “misremembered.”

Ultimately, NBC News decided on Tuesday night (they delivered the news late at night, making a mockery of the old-school thought that they could outrun the news cycle, which by the way, doesn’t really exist anymore) to suspend Williams for six months without pay. So, end of story, right? Not so much.

Williams and NBC have much more explaining to do before they can really expect any audience – read: customers – to welcome him back into their living rooms every night. What other stories might have he embellished? There are whispers of many tales that Williams has weaved throughout the years, and those will need to be addressed, as will the overall perception that he duped and wronged viewers. That’s not something you can just recover from, especially today when social media and the Internet can help spread information faster than ever before.

It’s a very good lesson for anybody in business today. You can’t overcome an order error just by saying, “Whoops, sorry.” It takes more contrition than that, as well as a clearly developed plan of action to ensure your client that it won’t happen again. Short of that, you’ll lose all integrity with that client. They won’t be able to trust exactly what you say, and without that, the business relationship will surely sour to the point of no return.

The Williams case also points out the need to always be truthful with clients. Those little white lies that are told in business – it’s the supplier’s fault, my margin is getting too squeezed, I’m sorry I’ve been too busy to get back to you – need to be done away with. It’s too easy today for people to find out the truth, so you may as well say it straight the first time. When in doubt, be as honest as possible. It’s something Williams should have been doing a long time ago.