Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Communications Strategy When You've Done "Terrible Terrible Things"

I'm a marketing communications professional...so when I was watching the Letterman Show last week, I was absolutely fascinated by the communications strategy.

If you've been out of the loop for the past week, you may not know the story. David Letterman, of Late Night Show fame, was being blackmailed by a man who had evidence of Letterman's various affairs with women in his office. Rather than pay the blackmail, David Letterman consulted with his lawyer and worked with police to catch the culprit and subsequently testify to the Grand Jury about the fact that Yes he had done the things the blackmailer accused him of. (at this point, Hubby rolls his eyes and says, "I couldn't care less about this if I tried.")

But I care. Not about Letterman and a sex and blackmail scandal, but about the communication strategy employed to save Letterman's persona.

Letterman made the choice to out himself and this situation immediately, or at least before the media got hold of it. Not so unusual these days, people - especially famous people - are beginning to learn that there is nothing that turns off the media so much as being hand-fed their info. They prefer the hunt and the bloody kill to the sacrifice.

But HOW he did it was the real twist. He monologued it (if that's even a verb). I'm sure he was thinking that this controlled environment, with an audience full of fans who were completely prepped to respond with chuckles and applause was the way to get it out in the open without possibility of tough questions, accusations of sexual harassment, and really anyone who could derail his side of the story. It reminded me of times when I have shared stories of embarrassing moments in my life with friends, asking them to laugh with me, rather than at me, and embellishing the story to get as many laughs as possible while surrounded by people who love me despite my foibles and faults. And truthfully, sex scandals can barely even bring down a politician nowadays, and certainly an entertainer can almost count on an uptick of TV ratings.

I guess it was the source of the blackmail material that made the communication strategy a little off kilter for me. The fact that Letterman actively garnered laughter and applause for his misdeeds...for his "terrible terrible things". Like an errant schoolboy caught pilfering from the teacher's lounge instead of a head of a multi-million dollar business who had been caught with his pants down with women who worked for him. I mean, let's be realistic too. Perhaps everything was consensual and the only real injured party here is his long-standing (and finally wedded) partner of 20 years. But how, I wonder, did she react to his delivery of the message to the public? Has her dignity been sacrificed at the altar of his career? What did she feel when subsequent guests came on the show with wise-cracking comments to make light of this situation?

These are the kinds of current event topics that come up in class in my master's program. Last year it was the A-Rod steroid scandal and if we were his communications consultant what would we recommend? Mea Culpa's was the consensus. Stop denying and excusing, and admit wrongdoing and apologize. Ask for forgiveness. I wonder what would have happened if A-Rod had taken his admission of guilt to Comedy Central and made self-effacing jokes about it?

Sincerity. Any expert worth his/her salt will tell you that's the key to any communication strategy. Whether personal or professional, eventually bullshit falls apart, spin is dissected, and flat-out lying is brought to light. If Letterman's admission had been a little more tinged with embarrassment and a little less self-congratulatory I might have been convinced of HIS sincerity. As I watched him, I think I picked up on the non-verbal cues of someone who is actually physically in discomfort. Each time he seemed to be getting serious about the story, and getting uncomfortable with the subject, he returned to a comfort zone of a quirked eyebrow, smart-ass comment, or some other comedian's tool. He actively encouraged the audience when they laughed, playing on their "inappropriate" enjoyment of his plight. "Now why is THAT funny?" he'd ask - obviously begging for more. All in all, it was fascinating to watch and pick apart with my brain engaged in strategic dissection.

Regardless of my reaction, I'm sure David Letterman will survive this latest debacle. I'm sure people will rally around him as just your average good guy from Indiana who was made a victim of someone else's greed. So in the end, isn't he lucky that it was an extortion scheme that brought this to light and not a sexual harassment claim?


DUTA said...

He's not out of the danger of sex harassment claims and his wife asking for a divorce.

Jenn @ Juggling Life said...

I guess he was smart enough to realize that even though he could have easily paid the blackmail this was going to come out sooner or later.

I do feel sorry for his wife--maybe this is why it took so long for them to marry.

JeannetteLS said...

The key here: as DUTA said, the MAN is nowhere near out of danger. The institution that is David Letterman is just fine. Seems like real old school PR to me. Out the offense, while keeping the institution clearly ontrack with the mission. Letterman is sarcastic, quick, the city-smart country boy. But he is brilliant at knowing the range of his own power. Look how he handled, was it McCain standing him up? This seems to me a classic for any PR class, especially, if there is punishment for the man. To understand how to protect the institution and sacrifice the personal. He did not allow the criminal to bring down his business, while laying HimSELF wide open for whatever comes next. Fascinating. (i've been in PR and Marketing for 25 years.)

Kate Hanley said...

There are a few examples in the past of people just admitting their "missteps" and moving on: Hugh Grant and the prostitute and George Michael and the "unfortunate incident in the loo" come to mind. By getting out ahead of it, these guys didn't lose much ground.