I’ve been a fan of David Letterman since I lived in New York in the mid-80’s. I also have a strange affection for Sarah Palin, even though she and I have quite different political views. Maybe I just get her confused with Tina Fey.
So, I watched with interest when Dave gave his tongue-in-cheek apology last week. Since then the controversy has exploded to the point that last night he was forced to try again with another apology, this one a touch more sincere.
For those who missed what the fuss is all about, Letterman made a joke insinuating that one of Palin’s daughters may have had sex with a baseball player at a Yankees game. The joke was not particularly funny and it was in bad taste.
When it was revealed that the Alaska Governor had, in fact, attended the game with her 14-year-old daughter and that she was extremely upset, Letterman started to back-pedal. He claimed the joke had been about Palin’s 18-year-old daughter and he admitted that, even so, it was in poor taste. Many commentators thought that it didn’t matter which daughter he was referring to and the criticism continued to grow.
So how did David Letterman handle the crisis?
When a crisis hits, you must respond very quickly. You need to reassure people of three things and you need to show that you are taking action to back up your words. Those three things are:
- I’m Sorry
- I’ve Fixed It
- It’s Never Going to Happen Again.
Letterman’s first apology was tardy and flippant and gave no real assurance that he meant any of the three points. As the storm grew, advertisers started pressuring CBS. Embassy Suites, part of the Hilton chain, pulled ads from the CBS website. A public rally was planned to demand that Letterman be fired. Critics started a website listing the show’s advertisers and urging people to send letters to the sponsors vowing to boycott any product listed on Letterman’s show. Facebook, Twitter and blogs were mobilized to demand that Letterman be fired.
By not responding quickly and decisively, Letterman had let the crisis grow and last night he was forced to try again. He said “I’m sorry about it and I’ll try to do better in the future.”
That covers points one and three but leaves out any assurance that the “problem” has been fixed. If people don’t believe that, they won’t believe it can’t happen again. And they won’t believe you’re really sorry.
Letterman and his producers initially tried to ignore the problem and then tried to do a half-hearted joking apology. When that didn’t work, they tried again but got only two of the three critical points right.
He’s great at stand-up comedy but when it comes to crisis management, David Letterman gets a failing grade.