Culture as our Compass: NBCUniversal Execs' Reaction to the Williams Fiasco

Guest Contributorby Lizz Pellet | Posted | Culture

Culture as our Compass: NBCUniversal Execs\' Reaction to the Williams Fiasco

Company culture is a funny thing. We tend to refer to it a lot in business today as being an integral part of our financial success, in good times and in bad times. And it’s the bad times where corporate cultural congruence or incongruence becomes flagrantly apparent.

This week, the media world was spun on its axis because a highly respected news anchor lost his credibility. However, the situation with Brian Williams needs to be examined beyond pointing our figurative fingers at Williams and shaking our heads.

NBCUniversal News Group is the organization that Brian Williams works for, represents, and quite frankly leads publically, as the anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News. 

And while the eye of the storm rightly focuses on Brian Williams, there’s something more to this story.  Something that speaks to the organizational culture at NBCUniversal News Group.

In order to distance them from the situation, executives have emphatically stated that they do not agree, condone or align with Williams’ behavior.

If their intent here is to send a strong cultural message, they’ve missed the mark. The reason?

NBCUniversal News Group is a trusted news agency, yet it’s been reported that it had previous knowledge and even proof that the leader of its nightly news program was manufacturing “stories” for quite some time.

Where cultural incongruence at NBCUniversal News Group comes into play

Deborah Turness, president of NBC News, used sharp language to describe the network’s reaction to Williams misrepresenting his helicopter ride while covering the Iraq war in 2003 and falsely claiming to have come under rocket fire.

According to Turness, the network’s investigation showed he had repeated the incorrect account in other venues:

“This was wrong and completely inappropriate for someone in Brian’s position … As managing editor and anchor of Nightly News, Brian has a responsibility to be truthful and to uphold the high standards of the news division at all times.” 

Steve Burke, NBCUniversal’s chief executive, was even more scathing: “By his actions Brian has jeopardized the trust millions of Americans place in NBC News.”

Yes, what Williams did goes against the principles and practices of journalism. But here lies the rub: NBCUniversal News Group should have nipped this situation up when they first learned about it.

Take a look at the stated values of the NBCUniversal News Group  as published on its career website: 

“The NBCUniversal News Group team is made up of individuals who are passionate about journalism, who operate with the utmost integrity, and who are committed to telling smart and engaging stories.” - Pat Fili-Krushel Chairman, NBCUniversal News Group

Hmm… seems to be a bit of incongruence with how they have handled the Williams situation in light of the organization’s stated and publicized values. If these values hold true, why did NBCUniversal News Group not act sooner?

NBCUniversal lost its perspective on its culture and guiding principles

In most organizations, if an employee, no matter what the position, is found in direct violation of company policy or reflection of values, they would be dismissed, let go, led to the door, kicked to the curb, sent packing, call it whatever you want. They would no longer be employed.

Remember the Boeing CEO affair?

But instead, NBCUniversal’s response is to suspend Brian Williams for six months without pay. It seems like a bit of a cop-out. (Or perhaps a way to ease into an announcement in six months’ time that Brian is leaving the organization.)

To add insult to injury as of two days ago, the NBCUniversal News Group career page , still features Brian Williams front and center as the star of the organization:

NBC universal

If the executives at NBCUniversal News Group truly wanted to send the message that this situation goes against the organization’s values alignment and employment brand, Williams should have been fired at the first whisper of evidence he was manufacturing stories for ratings, personal glory or whatever the reason.

A really good step they could take now? Removing the photo of this former NBC News golden boy from their organizations’ website.

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