In case you’ve been out camping for the past few weeks and missed the hubbub, David Letterman has been wrapped up in a blackmail scandal. Perhaps “wrapped up” is a bit strong of a term as he’s handled it quite well from a public relations perspective (and certainly not for lack of trying on the part of the paparazzi).
Are there lessons here that we can carry into our own crisis communications? Yes—
- Get ahead of the story – It was clear that this was going to come out, so Letterman put it right out there. Stories that dribble out little by little often get more interest due to the anticipation of the next revelation. By putting all of the information on the table, the Late Night host was able to cut the media life of the story far shorter than if he’d held back.
- Tell the story on your own terms – By using the controlled setting of his show, Letterman was able to tell the story the way that he wanted it told. If this had been revealed in an interview, or if someone else had controlled the editing of his comments, he may not have been portrayed in the manner that he wanted.
- Avoid being the bad guy – This one isn’t always possible, but this was Letterman’s net benefit of getting ahead of the story and telling it on his own terms. While a big piece of Letterman’s saga involves highly inappropriate actions on his part, he had the opportunity to portray himself as the victim – a risky strategy that can backfire if your audience doesn’t accept it. Doing this successfully, Letterman was able to buy himself a lot of a lot of latitude in admitting his misdeeds. You can’t always present your organization as the victim, but you can often find ways not to be the bad guy.
However, Dave made one big mistake in his initial apology.
By not being humble and apologetic to those who may have been hurt by his actions (in this case his wife whom he’d been dating for years when the incidents occurred), Letterman left himself open to criticism and caused some anger amongst his viewers, particularly female viewers. He quickly apologized for this error, but it won’t fully make up for the damage done.
While none of us like to deal with these types of communications challenges, these lessons in utilizing open, proactive communications can help us to minimize the damage done.