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Misremembering 101: The Fastest Way to Destroy Trust

02/27/2015 11:38 am ET | Updated Apr 29, 2015

Trust takes a lifetime to build to its fullest potential, but can explode in an instant. Ask Brian Williams.

Williams' career reached its pinnacle in December 2004 when he was selected as the Managing Editor and Anchor for the NBC Nightly News program, a job he worked for 23 years to obtain. The NBC Nightly News is watched by over two million Americans to get their daily dose of the world's top news events. These people welcome Brian Williams into their living rooms, and by and large, Williams' ratings and trust levels were high. In fact, he ranked as the 4th most trusted newscaster in an article from Newsmax as recently as January 16, 2015.

Then, two short weeks later on January 30, Mr. Williams shared a story of being under fire when covering the invasion if Iraq as part of his newscast. The next day came the report that Mr. Williams "misremembered" the facts of his experience in 2003. Mr. Williams reported a story he has retold many times in front of television cameras, specifically that he "looked down the barrel of an RPG when traveling by helicopter to a location in Iraq." Several sources, including the pilot of the helicopter that was fired upon and forced to land that day, stepped forward to report that Mr. Williams' was not on his chopper and that Williams' helicopter was at least 30 minutes from the location of the attack. In short, Mr. Williams told a false story, a lie.

He stepped forward and stated that he had "made a mistake in recalling the events of 12 years ago." This wasn't an unfortunate single slip of the tongue. He has retold his tale many times since 2003 in other public and private forums, including the Late Show with David Letterman. Mr. Williams has been suspended without pay for six months and may not be able to recover his trust edge once his suspension is over.

His "misremembering" of his experience reminds me of other infamous "misrecollections":

Hillary Clinton justified her foreign policy experience during the 2008 Presidential primary by sharing an emotionally powerful story. She said "I remember landing under sniper fire in Bosnia." After Barack Obama called her out on this untruth (and journalists found the video to prove it), she explained by offering "I'm only human." We have sadly come to accept this from our elected and appointed officials.

Journalists are rightly held to a higher standard. Jayson Blair (New York Times) and Mike Barnicle (Boston Globe) lost their positions after their "investigative" work was exposed as fabrication, while Janet Cooke (Washington Post) lost her Pulitzer Prize after the eight-year-old heroin addict she reported on never existed. Greg Mortenson, author of the book Three Cups of Tea, was exposed as having fabricated many of the stories that put his book on the best sellers list, and his book sales, charitable foundation and personal credibility all suffered.

What is "misremembering"? Do these public figures really believe that they won't get caught? Are they so narcissistic that they feel their embellishments (or outright lies) are, in fact, the "truth"? Whatever the reason, the phrase "I misremembered" causes the listener to instantly doubt the truth of anything offered by the speaker as truth. Claiming a faulty memory is the fastest way to lose the "Trust Edge."

A Note to Mr. Williams -- How can you rebuild trust?

Your journey back to the Trust Edge starts with a clear and sincere apology. Clarity and character in this moment are critical. You have to own your mistake.

You have to demonstrate compassion for your loyal audience..."I am truly sorry for causing you to lose trust in me."

This has to be followed by a commitment to truth. If you're fortunate enough to get your job back, you have to realize you won't get another chance if you cannot keep all of your trust commitments. You have to stay beyond reproach in every story. Forego the sensational in exchange for the simple truth.

It's a shame that you lost 23 years of your Trust Edge. Start today with clarity, character, compassion and a commitment, and you might get a second chance.

To paraphrase Walter Cronkite, a journalist whose Trust Edge is unquestioned: "That's the way it is."