David Letterman gives a lesson in crisis management

Even if you didn't watch the Late Show with David Letterman last Thursday night, you've likely seen the news coverage that followed it. Letterman used 10 minutes of his show on October 1st to tell millions of people about an alleged extortion plot against him. If you're unfamiliar with the story, a CBS News employee was charged with trying to blackmail Letterman for $2 million in a plot that forced the late night host to acknowledge having intimate relationships with some of the women who have worked for him.

The 62-year-old Letterman has a reputation as an intensely private individual. So it might have seemed incongruous to many when he dedicated a significant portion of Thursday's broadcast to providing such a detailed account of the story -- an account that culminated with Letterman telling his audience, "I have had sex with women who work for me on this show." While the 10-minute story/confession was surely unpleasant and embarrassing for Letterman, it was also a textbook example of good crisis management. Please note that this doesn't excuse or condone the veteran talk show host's behaviour. 

But given the situation in which he found himself, he handled the PR component well. Letterman knew this story (which had been brewing for three weeks) was on the verge of becoming public and he knew that it was going to be big. Rather than hiding from the press or making denials after the fact, he got out in front of the story on his own terms and via his own show that has an audience of millions.

If you haven't seen the video, it's worth watching. Letterman delivers his 'story', as he calls it, with equal parts earnestness, sensitivity and self-deprecating humour. And at the end of the stunning monologue, he indicates that this is his one and only statement on the matter, saying, "I don't plan to say much more about this particular topic." Where others failed before him (Bill Clinton, Mark Sanford, Eliot Spitzer, John Edwards...the list goes on), Letterman succeeded. Rather than lying about his indiscretions, hiding from the media or blaming his behaviour on someone or something else, Letterman came clean in an honest, forthcoming, refreshing way. By acting swiftly, he was also able to control the first news cycle and set the tone for all of the media coverage and Internet chatter that followed.

Just imagine how differently the situation might have unfolded if the story had been broken by TMZ or Entertainment Tonight. While there is no real winner in this situation, Letterman opted for the best course of action in a difficult circumstance. So far, none of the show's advertisers have pulled out of the show (FYI, advertisers spent more than US$135 million on the Late Show from January to June of 2009). CBS also issued a message of support for Letterman on Friday, saying in a statement that, "We think it was appropriate for Dave to disclose the matter publicly as he has, and we are continuing to co-operate with authorities." The show also benefited from a bit of a ratings bump, as pre-publicity for Thursday's broadcast led to ratings that were 22% higher than Letterman's average numbers for this season. That's not to say Letterman will emerge from this crisis smelling like a rose. His actions have disappointed some viewers who may choose not to tune in again. And this public airing of his private life is likely to cause him some grief on the home front. Having said that, his PR strategy is a good example of getting in front of a story, taking accountability and being honest with the public. And so far, it seems to have worked for him.