David Letterman: A Crisis Communications Case Study

Posted Oct. 2 2009, 01:06:30 pm

Julie Steininger

Senior Vice President


David Letterman’s audience didn’t witness a typical late night comedy show on Thursday. Rather than his Top 10 List, the show host shared that he had sexual relationships with female members of his staff and was the target of a related extortion plot.

Besides being fodder for Mr. Letterman’s competition, the event is an interesting case study in crisis communications.

Mr. Letterman obeyed Crisis Communications Rule No. 1 – Tell your own bad news first. He chose to tell his own tale before someone else did it for him. By embarking on a proactive communications strategy, he may have been able to somewhat minimize the impact. For example, Mr. Letterman may have contained the situation to a several-day story versus a several-month story and avoided recurring headlines such as “Another Letterman Indiscretion Revealed.”

Even if you are not a celebrity, a few guiding principles for solid crisis communications will serve you well – telling the truth and doing what is right. Organizations (and individuals) that fare best during crises share some similarities, including accepting responsibility for problems and making whatever amends are possible.

If all celebrities handled their gaffes like David Letterman, I wonder what every other talk show, entertainment magazine and tabloid would cover?

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