When the Morning Coffee Spills – The Termination of Matt Lauer (as of day one)

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Much is not yet known about what occurred at NBC News this morning. What we know is that renowned – and beloved – “Today” Show Anchor Matt Lauer was terminated for cause. That cause? Inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace.

These are the earliest moments of what will likely be a story that goes on for days and illuminates much more about this serious matter.  I certainly cannot speak to the allegations themselves, or to the larger societal issues of sexual harassment in the workplace. An initial consideration of the crisis response of NBC News Chairman Andrew Lack, and the subsequent on-air announcements by Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb illustrates the value of leading the dialogue.

While managing this very public crisis started off well, the days to come will be the true test. A few early observations:

  • 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.
  • The words chosen by Lack provided clear – if not detailed – understanding of the matter and NBC’s response. They recognized that this would be difficult to absorb, but also readily acknowledged their responsibility to act in a manner consistent with their policies and corporate values.
  • 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. Lack’s acknowledgement that they have “reason to believe” this is not an isolated incident prepares for that.
  • 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.
  • Finally, both Lack and the on-air team embraced their role as journalists and “owned” the situation, with direct statements that the news team will meet their responsibility to cover the termination and will share details as they become available.

Without a doubt, the days ahead will be challenging for everyone involved. More will be revealed about Lauer and his behavior. Efforts will be made to give the story multi-day life. Lauer at some point will have to speak for himself, and his first public message will be of critical importance.

Competitors will seek to get new information, and to identify opportunities to “expose” more about the network and the events leading to this announcement. Indeed, it already has been reported that The New York Times had been investigating Lauer for several weeks, and The New York Post alleges there was a sexual assault at the Rio Olympics.

The measure of a brand, and indeed of a venerable news network like NBC, is not how it responds when things are going well, but how it engages when the going gets tough. For NBC, for the many professionals at the “Today” Show, for the victims and for Lauer himself, this is only just getting started.