David Letterman Rips the Band-Aid Off
David Letterman did a bad thing. On his Thursday night program, he admitted to having sex with female staff members who worked with him on his show and that a man had tried to extort $2 million from him to keep that fact a secret.
Letterman told his live studio audience that he had admitted to the relationships during testimony earlier that very day before a New York grand jury. He also said that the extortionist had been arrested and that the Manhattan district attorney’s office would hold a news conference about the matter.
Hugely humiliating? Yes. But under circumstances, Letterman is doing exactly the right thing from a communications perspective. He’s ripping the Band-Aid off himself, all at once – shocking the public, embarrassing friends and family and suffering enormous shame.
But almost immediately, the healing can begin. Rather than letting the matter fester or risking the slow drip, drip, drip of stories from ““inside sources” and law enforcement authorities, he’s facing the music in a way that will engender at least some understanding from the public.
Perhaps even more important, by speaking out on the issue first, he’s already shaped the story. The first Internet headlines and news accounts following the taping of Late Night with David Letterman focused on the extortion attempt and the fact that the extortionist was captured. During the first hours, his sexual relationships were reduced to mere facts in the case.
What’s more, Letterman, who is married with one toddler son, took on the role of victim and vindicator in this play by using the acknowledgment of the affairs as a way to protect his loved ones.
““My response to that is, yes I have,” he said in response to his own rhetorical question about the affairs during the show’s taping. ““Would it be embarrassing if it were made public? Perhaps it would. I feel like I need to protect these people. I need to certainly protect my family.”
Of course, what comes next is critical. Now that Letterman has broken the news, he needs to apologize, then move on -- focusing on the future, showing up to perform on his nightly show and making positive news anywhere he can. Eventually, the constant Internet feeding frenzy of news, the misdeeds of other celebrities and public officials, and the healing power of time will combine to lessen the humiliation.
With enough time and continued good crisis management, this very unfortunate incident might not even make the Top Ten list.
Gene Grabowski is Senior Vice President of Crisis and Litigation at Levick Strategic Communications, the nation’s top crisis communications firm, and a contributing author to Bulletproof Blog.