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Top 10 List (ok 3) of Lessons From David Letterman

WE ALL KNOW that David Letterman can be a funny guy. We are now learning that he can be quit a savvy PR professional as well.

The talk show host’s handling of his recent “sex scandal” is truly one for the lesson books. We know that this kind of “news” can wreck careers. We are seeing that it doesn’t have to.

It has now been about a week since the news first hit the press and the story already seems to have shriveled up and all but blown away. How is this possible? A celebrity, a sex scandal and a blackmail! This is the kind of story that the press usually feeds upon for weeks if not months. It’s the kind of story that has ruined the careers of some of the most powerful (presidents, senators, CEOs) and well-loved (actors, musicians) public figures of our times. For Letterman however, it seems to have become little more than a fleeting comedic subject hardly worth a mention. How can this be?



1. Be the first to tell the news. Letterman didn’t wait for information about his trysts to come out in the press. He was the first to break the news. In fact, he told his story on the same day that the warrant was issued for the alleged blackmailer. This not only allowed Letterman to take control of the message, but it kept him from appearing defensive (and hence, guilty).

How do so many politicians miss this? They certainly have the same high-quality PR council that I’m sure Letterman had. Do they simply – despite all the evidence to the contrary – think they will be the first to squelch this kind of news? Time and time again, we see the negative results of sitting on a story and letting others control the message. When will they learn?

The same goes for companies that have bad news to tell. Be it a sex scandal, a product recall, an impending financial concern or other bad news – it’s vitally important to act fast and, if at all possible, ensure that you (and not the press) are the ones breaking the story.

2. Be honest. Letterman doesn’t deny the accusations. He doesn’t even try to minimize the wrong-doing (can you say, “It wasn’t really sex”?) He is very clear that he had sex with employees.

3. Take control of the message. If you watch the replay of his “confession,” you can’t help but be impressed with the way he took control of the message. Consider the following:

- He chose the setting for telling his story. He could have called a press conference. He chose instead to reveal his story on his show, in front of his biggest supporters – his fans.

- He shifted the story from one about sex with employees to one about blackmail. In fact, it wasn’t until almost 8 minutes into his ten-minute explanation that he even mentioned the fact that it was all about illicit sex. In his telling, it was all about this creepy guy who terrorized him with blackmail.

- He did say early on that the “blackmailer” was going to write about all the “terrible stuff” that he (Letterman) had done throughout his career. In fact, he mentioned “terrible stuff “several times. By the time he got down to specifics regarding sex with employees, it didn’t seem so terrible after all.

- Most importantly, he did a great job of positioning himself as the victim, not the guilty. In his telling of the story, he was able to keep the focus on the “blackmailer” and the trauma that he (David Letterman) had to endure in dealing with this evil-doer. He talks about be terrified that someone may be hiding under his car, he’s riddled with “Lutheran Midwestern guilt,” he has to do things he hates doing (conferencing with his lawyer), he says that this whole thing was “quite scary” and that he was made to fear for himself and his family. He even ends by saying his motivation for sharing this story was simply to protect his friends and family.   

So now, a week later, the story seems to be all but dead. I have yet to see Dave’s picture on the cover of any of the grocery store tabloids or on my computer screen when I pull up Yahoo! News. Is this the end? That may depend upon additional revelations revealed as the case plays out. If the sex wasn’t consensual or if any of the women felt harassed, the story may have additional play – but for now, thanks to a smart communications strategy, Letterman has certainly scored a knock out in the first round.

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More Stories By Brad Brenner

Brad Lee Brenner is a master blogger, radio host and founder of Brenner Associates, a public relations / communications firm headquartered in Portland, Oregon. Over the past thirty years, Brad has written hundreds of articles that have been published in trade journals, newspapers and online news sources. His focus of expertise includes technology, the medical industry and communications for the digital age.