NBC’s emotional coverage of a tribute for a retired soldier who provided ground security in Iraq for Nightly News Anchor Brian Williams certainly had some unintended consequences. Namely, the discovery that Williams’ claims of being on a helicopter that was forced down by an RPG hit during the 2003 U.S.-led invasion in Iraq are false.
Over the past few years, hundreds of companies have developed programs to support and honor our military and returning soldiers. It is truly wonderful that our country has rallied to support those who make the tremendous sacrifice to defend our freedom and honor in the armed services. At the same time, aligning with the military is also a smart brand move. According to a 2014 Gallup poll, the military continues to rank as the most trusted institution in America, a position it’s held for almost 25 years.
However, as organizations consider the best way to honor, engage and support military families, there are unique considerations that come into play.
For instance, consider honoring, engaging and supporting military families by reporting the facts about their days, their turmoil, their vindications, and their lives. Simply put: If we’re writing and reporting about the military, then let’s keep it about them and their choice to defend our freedom. Military stories should be about heroes, not being heroes.
Arguably, Williams is considered a trusted TV personality by most accounts, and he has sat in an influential seat for America’s evening news for over a decade. So, why would Williams, in this case, want to make this a particular story about him? Sadly, the RPG that allegedly hit the helicopter he was on 12 years ago has done major damage to his career today.
But, dear Brian Williams, you are not alone.
Throughout my career, I have worked for highly respected military leaders who have ended up losing their positions over taking the spotlight away from the young soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who worked for them.
For example, General Stanley McChrystal allowed Rolling Stone to conduct a personality feature article in June 2010 entitled “Runaway General.” Rather than following policy, McChrystal’s criticisms, unflattering remarks and personal opinions about the Obama administration quickly got the attention of the White House, and his illustrious 34-year military career came to an end.
Williams’ military segments should have been about the exceptional servicemen and women and how they were the heroes. His greatest mistake was making himself the subject of the story.
Currently the media is focused on Williams’ lack of journalistic and moral integrity. As a career military and public relations professional, I agree that integrity and credibility are paramount. But, integrity may have been just a symptom of the real problem – the hero syndrome.
An example of the hero syndrome can be found on the evening news or on YouTube, where service members are seen confronting military imposters at malls or airports. The buzzword now is “Stolen Valor” for an individual impersonating the military, making up war stories or wearing unearned medals. This idea strikes a chord with those in the military who endure family separation, hardship, PTSD, injuries and, in some cases, the ultimate sacrifice.
What does this mean to public relations professionals, agencies or corporations? In my experience, military cause marketing or cause-related marketing almost always has noble intentions. However, make sure your company is not trying to become the “hero.”
(Jack) Wesley P. Miller IV has extensive, specialized experience in strategic communication, crisis management and communication process/theory. From 1992 to 2014 he served as a public relations officer in the United States Air Force working for the Secretary of Defense, coordinating with Congress, the White House and the State Department. Miller serves as a counselor for rbb.