Will Lauer’s swift firing and his own apology douse the PR firestorm?

NBC axed the ‘Today’ co-host soon after a staffer alleged sexual misconduct. Still, questions linger about how much the network already knew, given other news outlets’ reporting.

The urgency to respond to sexual harassment allegations is growing, not fading.

NBC fired longtime host and TV personality Matt Lauer following a claim of sexual harassment by an employee. The accusations seemed shocking and credible enough to prompt the network to act quickly, and Lauer’s removal was announced Wednesday, live on air by co-host Savannah Guthrie.

A day later, Lauer has apologized.

The Daily Beast wrote:

In a statement read on the air at the top of the program by Lauer’s shaken co-host, Savannah Guthrie, [NBC News Chairman Andy] Lack said the abrupt termination was prompted by a “detailed complaint from a colleague about inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace by Matt Lauer.”

The bombshell announcement—a week after CBS This Morning co-host Charlie Rose was removed from his anchor chair, and had his eponymous PBS and Bloomberg Media show canceled, because of sexual-harassment complaints published by The Washington Post—came amid weeks-long rumors that unnamed outlets were preparing to run an investigation about allegations of Lauer’s workplace misconduct.

The speed of the firing was remarkable to some at NBC.

The Daily Beast continued:

“This happened so quickly,” the insider told the Post. “She didn’t go to the media, she made a complaint to NBC’s human resources, and her evidence was so compelling that Matt was fired on Tuesday night. The victim says she has evidence that this has also happened to other women, but so far we don’t have evidence of that.”

The removal preempted the release of a news report that had been in the works for weeks, both at The New York Times and Variety, and it allowed NBC to get out in front of a highly unflattering story.

CNN reported:

Lauer’s sudden ouster came as a shock to viewers — but not as a complete surprise to his “Today” show colleagues. They knew that Variety and other news outlets were investigating Lauer’s off-camera conduct.

One of those outlets, The New York Times, was in touch with an accuser who then met with NBC lawyers and human resources officials on Monday evening.

The accuser’s attorney, Ari Wilkenfeld, said it was a three-hour-long meeting.

“My client detailed egregious acts of sexual harassment and misconduct by Mr. Lauer,” Wilkenfeld said.

An investigation ensued on Tuesday. A decision was made to terminate his employment on Tuesday evening — a swift turnaround time.

In its exclusive exposé, Variety spoke with accusers who said that their complaints against Lauer had fallen on deaf ears at the network over the years.

It wrote:

Several women told Variety they complained to executives at the network about Lauer’s behavior, which fell on deaf ears given the lucrative advertising surrounding “Today.” NBC declined to comment. For most of Lauer’s tenure at “Today,” the morning news show was No. 1 in the ratings, and executives were eager to keep him happy.

Variety reported that the speed of Lauer’s firing was due to the backdrop of recent sexual harassment allegations rocking the news media and entertainment industries.

It continued:

Insiders say that NBC was forced to act quickly after this week’s complaint, given the severity of the accusations and the national dialogue around sexual harassment that has ended the careers of Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K. and other prominent men. Now, against a series of questions about the future of “Today,” a troubling portrait has emerged of Lauer. In front of the camera, for more than two decades, Lauer had positioned himself as America’s squeaky-clean dad. But behind the scenes, Lauer was a different person.

NBC’s quick actions left reporters to put together the timeline around Lauer’s dismissal, including such things as who knew what and when.

CNN reported:

Variety reporter Elizabeth Wagmeister said on Twitter that she had been pursuing “serious sexual harassment allegations against Lauer” for two months.

“NBC was aware” of the reporting, Wagmeister tweeted. “There are multiple women we’ve spoken to with far-ranging accusations against Lauer. The power of journalism has never been more evident with this cultural change.”

Reputation calibration

PR pros were watching Lauer’s dismissal with interest, analyzing how NBC was handling this latest example of a popular face being revealed as responsible for unsavory misconduct.

Hinda Mitchell at Inspire PR group wrote:

NBC stood strong. There’s no question there will be viewer backlash from multiple perspectives: those who feel betrayed by the network that what is perceived to be such swift action was taken (e.g., “innocent till proven guilty”) and those who believe NBC only responded because they wanted to get ahead of likely media investigations.

Although the short-term brand impact will be negative, NBC’s response allows for a path forward, and lays the foundation for the coming days of likely revelations. In so many of these cases, once an initial allegation is announced, other victims come forward. [NBC News Chairman Andrew] Lack’s acknowledgement that they have “reason to believe” this is not an isolated incident prepares for that.

Mitchell also noted that NBC relied on other media personalities to provide a human response, sending Guthrie and Hoda Kotb on air to announce Lauer’s dismissal.

Guthrie and Kotb’s comments at the start of the “Today” Show were authentic and heartfelt. They echoed what many viewers surely are feeling – confusion, concern, sadness, “heartbroken” and more. Their transparency in sharing their feelings will position the audience to join them – rather than to act in opposition to the network.

Further, Guthrie and Kotb made it clear – while their friendship with Lauer is deep, they feel comparable anguish for the victim(s) in the matter and recognized the strength it took to come forward.

Lauer voices his ‘sorrow and regret’

Lauer has apologized, putting out a statement that expresses contrition and admits “enough truth” in the allegations.

USA Today posted the full statement from Matt Lauer:

“There are no words to express my sorrow and regret for the pain I have caused others by words and actions. To the people I have hurt, I am truly sorry. As I am writing this I realize the depth of the damage and disappointment I have left behind at home and at NBC. Some of what is being said about me is untrue or mischaracterized, but there is enough truth in these stories to make me feel embarrassed and ashamed. I regret that my shame is now shared by the people I cherish dearly. Repairing the damage will take a lot of time and soul searching and I’m committed to beginning that effort. It is now my full time job. The last two days have forced me to take a very hard look at my own troubling flaws. It’s been humbling. I am blessed to be surrounded by the people I love. I thank them for their patience and grace.”

Lauer’s is the latest in a string of apologies as powerful men search for the proper phrasing to address decades of misconduct. Yet certain words are leading the public to disbelieve those statements.

In a poll conducted by Propeller Insights, some phrases cause listeners to doubt speakers who offer statements and apologies for sexual misconduct or other unseemly behavior.

Forty-three percent said that the spokesperson’s failure to remember the details of the incident caused them to doubt the statement, and 31 percent said the words “I swear” pushed them in the wrong direction as well. Even flat-out denial, in a statement such as, “The accusations are untrue,” inspired skepticism in 27 percent of respondents.

Social media response

Some on Twitter rejected Lauer’s apology:

Others are looking at NBC, wondering why network executives didn’t know about Lauer’s conduct sooner, and if they did, why nothing was done earlier.

What do you think of NBC’s response and Matt Lauer’s apology, PR Daily readers?

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