by Frank Williams
On October 20, National Public Radio (NPR) fired analyst Juan Williams for comments he made on Fox News. I have heard a wide range of opinions on Williams’ remarks and on whether NPR should have fired him. This column does not focus on the substance of his remarks or whether he should have been fired; instead, it focuses on a few public relations lessons we can glean from the manner in which NPR handled his firing.
Understand the Importance of Consistency: According to ABC News, Vivian Schiller, CEO of NPR, said that NPR’s reporters and analysts should not express opinions. ABC News reports that, while speaking at the Atlanta Press Club, Schiller said Williams had veered from journalistic ethics several times. However, NPR still employs Nina Totenberg, who in essence said that she hoped a certain U.S. Senator or his grandchildren would die of AIDS because of her disagreement with that Senator’s votes on AIDS funding. That certainly sounds like she was expressing an opinion, which Schiller says NPR’s reporters and analysts are not to do. The fact that that Williams was fired while Totenberg remains employed raises the question of whether NPR enforces its policies consistently or whether there is a double standard at work.
Understand the Power of Perception: Building upon the previous point, the question of whether NPR employed a double standard in firing Juan Williams while Nina Totenberg remains employed lends credence to the perception that there is a double standard at work and that Williams was fired for reasons other than those stated. This has fueled a widespread perception that he was fired because of his appearances on Fox News.
Know What You Want to Say: When dealing with the media or answering questions in a public setting, a leader or spokesperson should know what they want to say and how they will say it. This requires preparation, but will help you communicate your message succinctly and effectively. This leads to the next point…
Know When to Stop Talking: One of the most important rules a leader or spokesperson should follow when dealing with the media or answering questions in a public setting is this: once you’ve made your point, stop talking. This is much easier if you follow the previous rule and know what you want to say before you enter the fray. NPR’s CEO, Vivian Schiller, said that Juan Williams’ feelings about Muslims (the firestorm erupted after remarks he made about Muslims while appearing on The O’Reilly Factor) are between him and “his psychiatrist or his publicist.” Schiller’s implication that Williams has (or needs) a psychiatrist was a horrendous error in judgment. Schiller’s “psychiatrist” remark has drawn criticism from all corners and adds further credence to the notion that Williams’ firing was political in nature.
Beware Unintended Consequences: According to some news reports I have heard, the media coverage of Juan Williams’ firing has adversely impacted local NPR affiliates’ fundraising efforts. Additionally, the manner in which Williams’ firing was handled has made him a martyr in the eyes of many. I watched some of Fox News’ coverage of the aftermath of Williams’ firing, and it may have been the first time I have heard Republican Dana Perino and Democrat Bob Beckel agree on anything. If my memory serves me correctly, Beckel even said that he would not be contributing to NPR this year due to their handling of the situation. In addition to the potential adverse impact on private contributions, several top leaders have called for Congress to cease funding NPR.
In closing, I believe NPR’s firing of Juan Williams and the manner in which they handled the aftermath of his firing have done tremendous damage to the NPR brand. I believe this is, in part, a result of the failure of NPR’s leadership to think through and anticipate the consequences of their actions and words. NPR’s CEO is now apologizing for the manner in which Juan Williams’ firing was handled, but the damage has been done.
Frank Williams is founder and president of Pioneer Strategies, a Brunswick County-based public relations agency.