Friday, October 2, 2009

Damage Control 101 - with your instructor, David Letterman

David Letterman “gets it”.

On his show last night, David Letterman admitted to having been unfaithful to his spouse with a woman who had worked for him.

Newsworthy? Likely for some. But the way he handled it turned the story on its head – and proved why it’s good PR to get out in front of a negative story.

As Letterman alleges in the video below, he was being blackmailed by someone who demanded $2 million in exchange for not going public with the proof of Letterman’s affairs. Letterman had two choices:

1) Pay the money in the hopes of keeping the embarrassing news quiet – though there’s no guarantee the blackmailer wouldn’t come forward anyway.

2) Turn the tables on the blackmailer, and out the story himself.

He chose the second option, involving legal authorities to set up a sting and get the guy arrested in the process. [Note: unfortunately, the videos I had found on YouTube showing the full segment have been taken down. Will get a new one up as soon as I can find one.]

Is this embarrassing information? Yes. Does it make me think he’s a great guy? No. But he really did have sex with staffers – so he brought this on himself.

What he did with the issue from there, though, was textbook PR: he was the first to get the information out, and that gave him some control of the story. As a result, instead of all this morning's headlines reading “Staffer reveals Letterman cheats on wife,” or “Letterman has sex with employees,” headlines include:

"Letterman Reveals Extortion Attempt"

“Letterman says he was victim of extortion attempt”

“Letterman reveals affairs, $2 million extortion plot"

"David Letterman: Affairs led to extortion plot"

"David Letterman Reveals Extortion Plot and Confesses to Sex With Staffers"

Good PR doesn’t try to convince you that a bad thing is actually good – but, as Letterman showed us last night, it does help to mitigate the damage.


  1. Cheating on his wife was certainly a bad thing (not to mention the hurt and damage it will cause on their child). He certainly had used this personal issue to his advantage; to simply get away paying an extortionist $2 million but that move doesn't eliminate him from shame and public criticism. I think that was the only option he had left--to confess in front of millions of viewers. He just have to face the music and dance with it, no matter what the tune is!

    This confession reminds me of Mark Sanford, former governor of South Carolina. He admitted in June of this year that he had been having an affair with a close friend. Even before it came to the public's attention, his wife and family had known of the affair for several months already. Although in his case, there was no extortion involved, the pressure from the press trying to locate his whereabouts, pushed him to the edge of his seat and finally confessed his extra-marital affair. As a politician, he was supposed to take care of the public's trust, but eventually, because of this situation, he spoiled everything which caused him his political career that will have long term damaging effects. On top of this issue was his irresponsibility in managing his affairs as South Carolina's governor.

    In Letterman's case, well, he surely had poured the hot water to himself but I believe he would still stick around doing his job with no difficulty.

  2. I thought it was a great move on Letterman's part, for all the reasons you stated. I'm hoping that these indiscretions were committed long ago, and that these were things his wife long forgave him for (if you can ever fully forgive cheating, that is). I can't imagine how awful it would be for her to find out shortly before the world does, or even worse, when the world does.

    I think he'll bounce back just fine. Yes, what he did was awful, but he's dealing with it in the best possible way.