Say It. Really Live It: a lesson in brand behavior from NBC News

February 11, 2015
Tom Sanders Director, Brand Strategy

“It’s not a lie, if you believe it.” – George Costanza

No matter what the situation, it seems you can always count on a relevant Seinfeld reference. The genius behind the “show about nothing” is that it was about everything. But that’s another discussion.

The above quote came to mind as I watched Brian Williams’ apology for having “inadvertently conflated” his stories from Iraq and the botched post-apology clarifications. The resulting “Choppergate” has sparked a flurry of investigation and wide speculation ranging from the future of his career to full-on analysis of his psyche.

Personally, I don’t care about any of that. With the pressure of engaging 8 – 10 million homes a night, I can understand (but not excuse) why Williams would embellish his biography. The fact is, people lie.  A University of Massachusetts study found 60 percent of people lie an average of two to three times in a 10-minute conversation where they are trying to appear likable and competent. Whether it’s shaving a stroke off your game or claiming to never eat fast food, most of us do it at one time or another.

But the role of a news anchor carries the added responsibility of earning, maintaining, and reassuring public trust. Williams is under fire because he pretended to be something he is not. (Remember that last sentence, because this is where the story gets interesting to me.)

NBC News is issuing all the appropriate statements to the public; support of Williams’ choice to come off the air, committing to investigate the stories and most recently an “appropriate and proportionate” suspension. Every statement reassures us that NBC News is still worthy of our trust and support.

Why? Because we’re all in it together. In A Note from Deborah Turness, she publicly states:

“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.”

But according to a longtime NBC News employee quoted in the New York Post this isn’t necessarily the case internally: “Nobody in a leadership position is talking to the troops. Nobody has addressed it.” In other words, a global brand, that has led an industry of information delivery, is keeping its employees in the dark.

It’s an ironic situation that would make for an entertaining sitcom. You know, like 30 Rock.

This situation is a great example of the danger of an external-only approach to branding. Brand success relies on alignment and engagement with customers AND employees. It’s about creating relationships through discipline and consistency in everything you say and do. And what you do is often more important than what you say. When you walk the talk, you build allies and respect. Gaining support during a crisis becomes a matter of communicating instead of convincing.

To put it simply – how you say it, how you express your brand externally, should also be lived at every level of the organization.  NBC News is seeing a lot change all at once, and it’s affecting everyone – inside and outside of the organization. If the network is relying on employee dedication, loyalty and pride to help them weather the crisis, they need to engage their employees every step of the way. After all, people will support what they helped create.

You will never fully control your brand; you only influence how it is perceived. As NBC’s ratings have shown, those perceptions can change in the blink of an eye – the blink of an eye, Jerry!


Tom Sanders is the director of brand strategy at Core. Follow him on Twitter @stratocasting.

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