We’re All Accountable for Credibility in the Connected Age

There's plenty of punditry going on in the midst of the NBC News/Brian Williams mess. The implications of the impact of the Williams episode (the now-suspended anchorman describes his inaccurate re-telling of events in Iraq while he was on assignment as "misremembering"--others have called the instances confabulation or outright lies) go far beyond the impact to journalism or even NBC's news broadcast.

This is also about the degree of damage an individual elevated to rock star status can do to an organization or brand, and the responsibility of leaders to hold colleagues accountable. Now more than ever, we are living in an era of the executive as rock star, and as some have said of Williams--that he is more performer than journalist--some corporate leaders are much better performers when standing behind a podium than they are in the office. As their profiles and status as popular speakers grow, so too does the reality that the ubiquity of Internet connectivity renders the stories executives tell, sometimes with themselves in the protagonist/hero role, vulnerable to being researched for verification and reported on in real time.

Sure, everyone embellishes from time-to-time, but maybe it's time to ask ourselves how credible we are as representatives of our organization's brand? From résumés and LinkedIn profiles to the stories told by our executives in public venues--could they stand up to scrutiny if the warm spotlight were unexpectedly replaced by the harsh glare of investigative inquiry?

Would Williams have continued on unchallenged, by virtue of his rock star status, had one veteran not posted that fateful rebuttal to William's account of the Iraq story on Facebook? And what about reports that there were warning signs as much as a year ago that Williams had misrepresented the story in question and others? If this is so, why didn't NBC's executive team look into the rumblings sooner?

In a memo to NBC employees Deborah-Turness, NBC's CEO announced Williams' suspension, noting "This has been a difficult time. But NBC News is bigger than this moment. You work so hard and dedicate yourselves each and every day to the important work of bringing trusted, credible news to our audience. Because of you, your loyalty, your dedication, NBC News is an organization we can - and should - all be proud of. We will get through this together."

While Turness makes the point that NBC News is "bigger than this moment," she also seems to be saying they are bigger than any one individual's persona. The news will continue on while Williams is on suspension.

What can organizations learn from this? The message is clear: a culture of rock star worship is not a healthy one. Start by making sure your own house and those of your leaders are in order. Review your own résumé. How accurate is it? Would it hold up to vetting to include reference checking and credential verification? What about those of your leaders? Is there a bit of cringe-inducing corporate-lore being perpetuated? Now may be the time to retire it. The awkward internal conversation you might need to have will be nowhere near as awkward and costly as having to have it with your customers and shareholders.

Lorrie Lykins is i4cp's managing editor and director of research services
Lorrie Lykins
Lorrie is i4cp's Vice President of Research. A thought leader, speaker, and researcher on the topic of gender equity, Lorrie has decades of experience in human capital research. Lorrie’s work has been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and other renowned publications.