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Brian Williams and the Lost Art of the Public Apology

Brian Williams is sorry. The NBC anchor said so on his nightly newscast, on Facebook and in the pages of Stars and Stripes, the magazine that first unearthed his repeated lies about flying in a helicopter struck by an RPG over a decade ago in Iraq.

And yet it’s not enough.

It’s not that being apologetic isn’t adequate repentance for Williams’ sin. What isn’t enough is the nature of the apology he is offering. Like so many wayward public figures who aren’t getting the right damage-control advice, Williams seems to believe apologizing early and often will take care of the problem without giving sufficient attention to how they say they are sorry.

Williams and NBC Universal–which may be sweating even more than the anchor is about his future as the face of its news division–probably think they did their best just by addressing the situation head-on in multiple outlets. To make such an apology from the very anchor desk where so many Americans trust him to be unfailingly honest was intended to acknowledge the gravity of his fabrication.

But the substance of what Williams said, and the absence of even feigned contrition in his delivery, only made his predicament worse.

Let’s start with the wording of his statement. First, the utterance “I made a mistake” should be retired by all crisis-PR experts for the rest of eternity. It is a sentence intended to sound forthright and remorseful in all its unambiguous pithiness. But overuse over the years has turned “I made a mistake” into the opposite of what it should be; it’s such a stock phrase, it basically signifies nothing beyond doing what shamed public figures feel they have to do.

In situations where household names like Williams shock us with their misdeeds, people are more interested in hearing some sense of why the sinner in question did what they did than just blurting out “I’m sorry.” Williams attempted to do this by offering what seems like a unbelievable excuse: the “fog of memory” led him to confuse the unharmed helicopter he was actually in with another helicopter that took fire.

Really?

It doesn’t take a four-star general to remember correctly whether the aircraft they were in was struck by a missile.

But perhaps Williams could have even garnered some forgiveness for even such a far-fetched alibi had he squeezed even a scintilla of emotion into his written and oral apologies. This is where Williams and so many celebrities have gone wrong when the right words could actually do a lot to pull their feet out of the fire.

From Paula Deen to Amy Pascal, it’s amazing how many public apologies are such bloodless, over-calculated nothingburgers that they do more harm than good.

Imagine had Williams spent more than just a minute at an anchor desk–perhaps even a good 10 minutes in a YouTube video, or even a whole hour on “Dateline NBC”–really speaking from the heart (or faking such sincerity).

Be authentic, even vulnerable. Agonize a little. Don’t cry if it doesn’t come naturally, but emote as if your career depends on it because–guess what?–it does.

Last year provided a decent example of a star who managed to do this correctly. Recall the accusations of homophobia Jonah Hill faced when he uttered some  unfortunate epithets in a TMZ video. He went on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” and either gave a performance even better than his role in “Moneyball” or resembled an actual choked-up, torn-up human being.

What if Williams had dropped the robo-anchor persona and, rather than saying he got confused, spoke at length on camera about what really happened that day. The sight of a genuinely repentant individual could go a long way to repairing his reputation.

All this criticism of Williams may sound unsympathetic, but to the contrary: If he makes the right moves, a man who by all other indications is a good person who, like all of us sometimes, made an unfortunate mistake can turn this around. It’s not too late to save his career.

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