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October 05, 2009


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Great analysis, and you're right on with getting ahead of the crisis. So many companies try to deny and mislead when they mess up. David Letterman at least had the good sense not to try and cover up. In our society of transparency, there is no way his behavior was going to go unreported. Best to "man up" and take his lumps, and gain a bit of sympathy for admitting his mistakes.

Benjamin Spall

Couldn't agree with you more David (both Davids, if you will).

The Guardian, an upper-class but still 'cool' respected newspaper in the UK ran the story under the headline "Letterman Foils $2m Extortion Plot" along with a video of the confession, and bare mention of the actual sexual affairs - it was all focused on the extortion.

It's the best PR example I've seen in a very long time.

Steve Jones

Great points David.
I thought Letterman's handling of the entire thing was a masterful lesson in modern media.
He was honest, straightforward, self-deprecating, and vulnerable. A few very uncomfortable, but very engaging, minutes of television that won't soon be forgotten.
Thus, as you noted, the scandal becomes one of extortion instead of Dave's questionable behavior.

Claire Celsi

David: Have you ever been in a long-term relationship? Have you ever had a child with someone? Have you ever had a female employee?

First, let me point out that David Letterman IS married, and he has been in a long-term relationship with the mother of his child since 1989. She has lived with him since 2001. They have a five-year-old child together.

Also, people are acting like it's normal and perfectly ok for him to have affairs with female staffers. Every good HR professional and staff attorney worth their salt would know that not only does this cast a negative light on the private and "squeaky" (sleazy?) clean Letterman but it also puts CBS at significant risk of lawsuits.

Yes, he "got out in front" of it from a PR angle, but what did he really do? He embarrassed himself, probably devastated his wife, put himself and his company at significant legal risk and drew unwelcome attention to someone who makes his living by making fun of people like HIMSELF.

I think giving him credit for anything is inappropriate in this situation.

Adi @ The Management Blog

Owning up to things certainly works to your advantage I think. Here in Britain there has been a scandal involving bribery at British Aerospace and throughout the long investigation they have refused to own up to the allegations made against them, despite aiming for a financial settlement in the case.

David Meerman Scott

Claire - Thanks for your comment. I corrected the part about him being married. You're right, he is married now but was not married at the time of the affairs.

As I said in the post several times, I do not want to comment on the morality of Letterman's behavior. There are many other places where that aspect is being discussed. I am simply commenting on the PR aspects of his confession.

Thanks, David

D. Brooks

Brilliant but Risky....

Yes, Letterman won the race to scoop the media and thereby control the news but I think he inadvertently opened the door to other inquiries because of the poor choice of forum.

By releasing the news in the most favorable of audiences, his own show, he ducked any objective/adversarial vetting of his claims.

And there are several unasked (and unanswered) questions that merit a response:

Why didn't the extortionist simply write a screenplay and cash in that way? Who is the extortionist protecting from public embarrassment(a girlfriend?/a wife?). Also, since we're talking about affairs (plural), does this revelation suggest that Letterman is a sexual harasser? Will we hear from other female employees of WorldWide Pants (Letterman's production company) who spurned his advances and didn't get a promotion or felt "pressured" to leave the company?

Sure, his candor and openness is admirable, but the strategy assumes that the matter is now concluded. It isn't. By avoiding exposing himself to any Q&A, reporters (good ones, anyway) are left to follow lots of loose threads. If there was convincing answers to all these loose threads, then why not expose yourself to a Q&A in the first place? It is an open invitation to a good reporter to follow up and nail down the loose ends...or nail Letterman.

I'm afraid he won the battle but will lose the longer war...if there's more to the story than will fit in a talk show monologue.

David Meerman Scott

D. Brooks -- All good points of course. More information is bound to come out of this. Many thanks for jumping in.

Stacey Holleran

Mainstream media reported today that, to no surprise, viewership of Letterman's show has risen markedly in the wake of the scandal. For the most part events such as these, no matter how deplorable, end up being fodder for increased popularity.


David Letterman is a wise man. And it's a pity why most people are prying on the imperfections of others than seeing their own imperfections. David is mature enough to know this wisdom and I admire him for that.

We are only humans, even the saints commit sins. :-)

Omar Halabieh

Regardless of the morality aspect behind the story, I think that David L came out and did the right thing, since this story was bound to be exposed sooner or later. I think what he did shows a lot of courage and indirectly some regret for the actions he had taken. I agree with Walter, as humans or companies we are bound to make mistakes (but make sure the mistakes are not repeated), the difference is how we deal with those mistakes and the first step is admitting. This should be followed by a specific action plan to address the issue, as well as a process to ensure this does not happen again.


Oscar Del Santo

I fully agree with David that owning up is consistently the best policy, even when it brings on negative consequences for us in the short run.

Kay Plantes

David may have gotten the PR right (and he likely paid a bundle for the advice) but he sure got "protecting his brand" wrong. In the end, if your behavior is not consistent with your promise, the brand loses its value no matter how good the PR. A funnyman who makes fun of sleazy behavior by people in power is no longer so funny when he is abusing his position of power and having sex with staff members. Even if the sex was agreed to by his staffer(s), those not part of the "in" circle feel very disenfranchised. This is no formula for attracting and retaining top talent much less for building a strong brand.

Amanda O'Donovan

The UK's Guardian applauds the talk-show host with, "Letterman Foils $2m Extortion Plot," skilfully turning the spotlight on the evil extortionist. Canada's Globe and Mail today chose to bury a single column on page 16, "Letterman says wife 'horribly hurt' by sex scandal." After 20 years, maybe Regina has learned that partner-turned-hubby Dave will always steal the spotlight, but it does feel like she's got the raw end of his pre-emptive confession.

We'll have to wait and see how the story plays out...but let's not forget that there are two (or more) sides to this latest tale of public humiliation...(move over Jon and Kate!)


Letterman is a brilliant story teller and by choosing to claim the story and get out in front of it, he pulled the rug out from under the media. Impressive from a crisis management & communications standpoint.

As a fan I don't base my choice to watch Letterman's show on his morals or lack thereof. My viewing behavior will not change. Whether Letterman misused his power as "the boss" or the talent, or whether his staffers sought this form of attention as a form of groupie-ism, it is irrelevant to how I view his successful strategy in managing the situation when it became public.


I think David (MScott) is right- sometime how you react to what has happened, will determine the severity of what really happened.
Having sex with others, while you're in a relationship, is a horrible thing. Being unfaithful, makes you lose your partner's trust, and could have legal implications. That's what happened.
There are several ways to handle what happened, to minimize the effect, for example:
1. The David Letterman way: Get up on stage, and confess, before it gets out of hand.
2. The Bill Clinton way: deny it publicly for as long as possible, and then be remembered forever as a "dress stainer".

The reaction choice is now yours.
Sure, it is a lot smarter to preserve your integrity, and your "brand" (@kay plantes), but that's is a bit late for that. I think the Letterman way of handling the situation he stupidly put himself into, is the right one.
The PR effect is reflected well in the press (@amanda) - it will be a story with an end, and a couple of years from now the whole thing will be erased from public memory. As opposed to the Bill Clinton story.

Amelia Vargo

Yeah he did the only thing he could do which was admit to his bad behavior. That was genius.

The acts themselves were not so great, but he's human and like you I don't think this is the right place for that kind of discussion.

David Meerman Scott

Thanks all for your comments. Really good discussion here. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

Many readers of this blog are either entrepreneurial business owners or professional marketers or communicators.

I think that the Letterman example is an important one because there may be a point in our careers when we are faced with the choice of going public with something (or not).

This serves as a good case study. And it is worthy of debate around the communications angle alone.

Of course Letterman should not have had the affairs. Of course he hurt those around him. Of course he hurt his brand. But once again, I am not discussing those issues on this blog. We'll leave that to other forums.

There will likely come a time in every one of our careers when there is a crisis. It will sneak up on us. Perhaps a defect in a product from your company causes people to get sick. Or you learn that your CFO was embezzling a million dollars a year for a decade.

How will you react?


Collin Willardson

I think its insane. when i first heard about it i thought it was maybe a joke or a stunt.

Livemercial Sarah

I agree with your post 100%! Getting ahead of the crisis was the right choice in this situation. I love the way you analyzed the ordeal and thanks again for sharing!

Claire Celsi

Now it comes out that David Letterman continued his affair after his marriage took place...seems that he was not telling the whole truth, which is part of public relations. I still say this has blown up in his face.

David Meerman Scott

Claire - Yes, I would agree that the further revelations serve to diminish the value of him admitting it up front. Thanks, David

Gregg Shields, APR

He's right to break the news himself, but he could have done better in many ways.

At first it was, "That's all I'm gonna say." Then he revisited it on his next show, made some apologies and joked with Steve Martin about it.

Give it a little more thought, Big Guy, before you communicate. Last words? I doubt it. You're going to have many words in a public courtroom when the criminal case is opened next month, and in the future if any of your employees or former employees decide to sue.

Here are a few of my thoughts as a Crisis Communicator: http://tinyurl.com/gshields

vitamin d

Funny Article. So many companies try to deny and mislead when they mess up. You're going to have many words in a public courtroom when the criminal case is opened next month, and in the future if any of your employees or former employees decide to sue.

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