You can’t turn on the TV without hearing the latest update on the David Letterman sex/blackmail scandal. But with the swirling media frenzy the questions that remain to be answered are, did David Letterman ruin his image and his career? The jury is still out but this certainly is one of the most intriguing developments in recent memory from a public relations standpoint.
In theory Letterman did some good things in dealing with the situation from a communications standpoint. He got out in front of the news, announcing it himself on his show in an attempt to control the situation. The problem with his approach was the manner, and the forum, in which his confession took place.
He told the story on his show in front of his audience from behind his desk, joking his way through it in a scene that created confusion and discomfort in the audience and left them wondering whether or not it was real. He painted himself solely as a victim of blackmail, admitting only after 8 minutes of a 10 minute story that he actually had sex with women who work on his show. He never once apologized for his conduct, to his wife, to his network, to the women (though he would on a later show).
To make matters worse after explicitly saying he didn’t plan to say much more about this particular topic, he has continued to include jokes about it in his monologues of his subsequent shows. And while he jokes about “raking hate mail” this fall or the fact that it’s cold outside his house and inside his house, people are left wondering whether or not he is contrite or if he even cares about the impact his actions have on others.
In crisis situations that is often what it comes down to, do you care? If you can show people that you care, you are generally sorry and you are doing something to change your actions or atone, they will more often than that, forgive and move on.
Does Letterman care? He apologized on air to his wife and staffers, but given the ratings bump he received, it seems a little too opportunistic and a little too late. So to most people the answer likely appears to be no.
Letterman took a gamble and decided to make light of a pretty serious situation. It may be too early to say if his joking approach to this crisis paid off. If you ask me, he’s just another pop culture punch line.