Crisis Management: Letterman – good start but now what: Crisis decision-making
For every crisis the most consistently difficult decision is how proactive to be? Should you announce a potentially public embarrassment and risk shooting yourself in the foot or delay comment until and if someone else reveals the problem? I tell corporate audiences that if you see the crisis train speeding toward your company it’s usually better to blow the whistle on yourself than wait for the collision.
Comedian David Letterman did precisely that in the 10 minute “story” he told his nightly show audience revealing an extortion attempt against him. He admitted having sex with women who worked for him and that someone had threatened to blackmail him for $2 million in exchange for keeping quiet. Rather than it dribbling out, Letterman exposed it just hours after the accused CBS producer was arrested. Letterman’s production company Worldwide Pants announced, “Dave is not in violation of our policy and no one has ever raised a complaint against him.” In a later program he apologized to his wife and staff. Most crisis managers lauded his deftness in handling it all although some pundits criticized his humor.
Score round one for Dave. However, will he win the others and retain his audience? CBS News said its investigative team is looking into Letterman and suspended producer Robert Halderman. The 24/7 media are on the trail of “Dave’s women.” Wake Forest University graduate Stephanie Birkitt, a former assistant who also did on-air bits, quickly acknowledged a relationship from six years ago with Letterman, and a former intern came forward. Both were complimentary.
Good crisis management also includes doing, as well as saying, the right things. Since actions speak loudest, what now with the media glare on the comic, his company, and CBS?
Even though CBS only broadcasts the show provided by Worldwide Pants, the network still must investigate Letterman for possibly violating typical HR policies against sexual harassment of subordinates. Even if nothing illegal surfaces, moral/ethical duty may compel CBS to take action against Letterman or at least warn him. CBS and Letterman could jointly announce any such penalty or warning or, ideally, exculpation. It depends on whether there is devil in the details. An intern fling is being reported and Letterman curiously admitted on-air he hoped to save his job. Yet, he also said he told the grand jury everything “creepy” that he had done. That sounds like full disclosure.
As for Letterman himself, edgy humor, authenticity and self-deprecation are his charm, and he’s weathered controversy before. Barring an explosive revelation or lawsuit by a past lover, he should be able to ride this out as long as he continues to reveal major developments and comments on matters of magnitude. He’s demonstrated an inclination to do that and restrain his trademark sexual innuendo for awhile. There’s another sign that Dave might soldier on successfully. Internet readers’ comments about him seem to run about 50-50 for and against. Social media experts say that when opinions are divided, that’s good: if they are heavily one-sided against you, that’s bad.
So far, many seem willing to cut David Letterman slack. So far. And let’s see what viewership is like after the initial firestorm dies down.
A personal note, I know Letterman did this to himself, but I still find it galling that a blackmailer can cause this much trouble.