Wednesday, October 14, 2009


It's safe to assume that a couple of weeks ago was not one of David Letterman's top 10 weeks. Still, he's done a pretty respectable job of following many core tenets of good crisis communications. The fallout is far from over, but on the eve of the first week of his coming clean, let's take a look at how the late-night funnyman fared.

Rule No. 1 in crisis communications is frame the news before someone else does. Letterman did that. Like any CEO should, he took responsibility for what he did wrong and did so in front of a national TV audience. In a very transparent way, he controlled the message, and released the information on his own terms and on his own turf—behind the desk. And he portrayed himself as a victim in the extortion attempt.

He said “I'm sorry,” and he seemed to mean it, especially when apologizing to his wife. There are countless examples of athletes and executives who have faked their way through apologies in front of a bank of cameras. Dave was contrite and credible.

You get tried in the court of public opinion before a court of law. So far, the court of public opinion has ruled in Dave's favor. There are still lines around the corner of the Ed Sullivan Theater waiting to get into the show. The night he confessed, his show had the highest ratings of the late night lineup.

In general, he's done a good job of walking a fine line between humor and humility. The one exception: he made jokes about having sex. There's nothing funny about sexual misconduct in the workplace, and he needs to steer clear of any attempts at making light of what he did. For years he made jokes about the sexual exploits of others, including former president Bill Clinton, New York's Eliot Spitzer, and Gov. Mark Sanford to name just a few. Now he's part of the club. He should forgo the sex jokes and leave them to other comedians.

So he got through the first week. Excerpts from diaries are surfacing now as other former staffers allege they had flings with Dave. Inevitably, if there is more dirt, it will surface. One other important principle in crisis communications is to get it all out early on to avoid death by a thousand cuts. That will be Letterman's test in the weeks to come.

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