by Matt Barkett

November 30, 2017

One of the key questions any organization has to ask itself when facing a high profile crisis that is about to go public is, “Do we proactively disclose it and get our side of the story out there first, or do we sit back and monitor the story arc to determine how we will respond?”

NBC answered this key question in the Matt Lauer scandal by going proactive, using its own “Today” platform to publicize its decisive action to fire Lauer without additional investigation after what an NBC spokesperson is claiming to be the first and only allegation of this kind against Lauer in more than 20 years of employment. Some are saying this action was a critical move to protect NBC’s reputation – but is that really what was at play here?

Just one day later, multiple news outlets are saying they were actively investigating Lauer’s alleged behavior and are reporting many accounts of inappropriate sexual conduct by Lauer from former and current female employees. It was just a matter of time before these stories broke, and NBC may have simply decided it was time to cut bait on Lauer as they circled the wagons on their own possible liability in the matter. It’s also possible they saw an opportunity to grab control of the story and get ahead of several competing media outlets ready to pounce on Lauer as well as NBC’s decades-long protection of its biggest star.

Is it a coincidence that “Today” hosts Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb received this news only hours before they went live on the show, only to lead the broadcast with the bombshell of allegations that dominated the news all day, with NBC at the center of the coverage? And then to do the same thing the next morning with Lauer’s response statement, again received only minutes before air time and just in time to lead off the program and the day’s news cycle? Those seem to me like coordinated actions to try to control the story and dominate morning show ratings.

NBC has been scrutinized in the past for its own inaction on similar storylines. According to the New York Times this week, the network last year “reviewed 2005 footage from the NBC-owned show ‘Access Hollywood’ that revealed Mr. Trump bragging about grabbing women’s genitalia. But the footage was released first by a competitor, The Washington Post, embarrassing the NBC news division. In recent weeks, NBC News was criticized for passing on an exposé of Mr. Weinstein by an MSNBC contributor, Ronan Farrow. Mr. Farrow’s reporting later appeared in The New Yorker, and helped set off the current wave of revelations about abuses by powerful men in media and entertainment.” Maybe they decided to take a different approach this time.

In the days to come, NBC’s actions (or inaction) as it relates to Lauer’s alleged behavior – as well as what they knew and when they knew it – will become a key component of this story. In the end, NBC’s own possible liability in this matter may have influenced their decision to go proactive and throw Lauer out before other media outlets broke the story and cast a negative light on the network’s handling of the allegations. One thing is clear – this story isn’t going away anytime soon, and NBC will have to figure out how to continue to stay ahead of it now that they decided to make the first move.

Good crisis communications is about the right response and about proper planning before an event occurs. To talk more about how we approach these challenging topics, please feel free to email me or call me at 216-241-3073.