Ah, the fragility of credibility. Those of us on the front lines of the personal branding business know from Warren Buffet that "it takes twenty years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it." In the Digital Era, there have been more than a few prominent people who needed only a few seconds or a click on a smartphone to compromise their integrity and implode their careers.
The ruining of a reputation can, of course, take much longer. Some people marinate a stew of lies and half-truths over several years until it catches up with them or they are exposed. Such is the case with Brian Williams, anchor and managing editor of the NBC Nightly News, who took a few too many liberties and is paying a high price for fabricating his stories.
On February 7, 2015, in light of recent admissions regarding his involvement in events he covered throughout the years, Williams voluntarily stepped down from the anchor desk. This move, which he considers temporary, is as much to catch his breath as it is to let the media hoopla subside. At the time of this post, the ripples are widening as his faulty "recollections of certain stories" have called his credibility into question..
Courting Credibility in Business
Whereas all of us have manipulated personal information on occasion, lying is not good for one's brand. In the quest for credibility, or in order to land a job, there are those that will say things, concoct outcomes, and assert inaccuracies as fact. In a cutthroat competitive business environment, perhaps these people feel that they can profit from an augmented reality. Fudging a resumé does not make one credible; rather, it causes one to act out of integrity. What is to be gained from an unethical advantage?
The Internet provides a framework for individual representation unlike any invention conceived by man. Online, we can control the version of ourselves that others see, hoping to drive favorable outcomes in the physical world. The LinkedIn profile is designed to showcase our professional accomplishments and accolades with the dual goal of being taken at face value and engendering trust and confidence in our abilities. We can be whoever we want on this page, but we should never over-inflate our self-belief and stray from the truth. That is what gives us credibility.
On the Nature of Exaggeration
Living an exaggerated version of oneself is nothing new. It is the classic case of the vivid imagination run wild, the angler's lament of the one that got away. We own and embody our story. The embellishments are out there for the taking. In Williams's case, he fixed a few fictitious pieces to his subconscious and allowed them to take root in his broadcasts. He could have sworn that he was caught in a line of enemy fire on a chopper in Iraq, and saw bodies floating past him post-Katrina in the French Quarter.
Lying is an unfortunate aspect of the human condition, one that truly separates us from the animals. George Costanza of Seinfeld, superbly portrayed by Jason Alexander, once stated that "his whole life was a lie." A chronic stretcher of truth, George impersonated a marine biologist, asserted himself as the head of the Aryan Nation, and often pretended to be an architect. He even convinced Jerry that "it's not a lie, if you believe it."
For purposes of full disclosure, allow me to state that I am a Brian Williams fan. I have always appreciated his eloquence and poise in front of the camera, and enjoyed his appearances away from the newscast. But his behavior is an unfortunate statement on the extremes to which humans will self-fortify to compensate for an inadequacy or fill a void.
♦ In an era where personal brands flourish on the basis of trust, this is not a minor misstep. Williams has betrayed the trust placed in him and, in so doing, tarnished his reputation as a journalist. Maybe it's time to really come clean, write a book, and go on the college speaking circuit.
♦ While on this self-imposed hiatus, Williams will surely reflect on the consequences of his words. One wonders if he is channeling his inner Warren Buffet. Perhaps if he thought about his reputation as the words were leaving his mouth, he would have done things differently.
♦ I will be as interested as anyone to see how this plays out and if Williams reclaims his anchor chair. He is dodging real bullets now. Yet it remains to be seen if this fall from grace will complete in a resounding thud. We can be a very forgiving society, you know.