David Letterman’s PR Problem


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:

  1. I’m Sorry
  2. I’ve Fixed It
  3. 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.



Filed under Communication, Media, Messaging

3 responses to “David Letterman’s PR Problem

  1. Was it not maybe an issue to ponder, until he read Palin’s letter on-air. That made it a crisis. Maybe even then still an issue. Maybe it only became a crisis when sponsors/advertisers pulled out.

    If he would have not read the letter, and ignored Sarah’s comments, might it all have been a whitewash. I’m not sure it would be the correct actions to take, but what if?

    • It was when Sarah Palin first objected to David Letterman’s joke that the potential for crisis began. By misreading the public mood and not responding quickly, the flames were fanned. The first apology only made things worse and despite the second apology, the crisis may not be over. One advertiser has pulled ads from the CBS website and a protest is still planned for today’s taping of the show.

      What Letterman didn’t do was demonstrate that he was willing to “fix the problem”. He might have announced a new policy directing his writers not to embarass teenage girls, he might have made a donation to Big Sisters or sent a hand-written personal letter to the Palins.

      • I think he does not need to do any of the above mentioned action. But as a good PR gesture, David Letterman might want mentioning, on air, that he has directed his staff not to write any more jokes of similar fashion.

        I believe whole thing is a non issue and a crisis it is not, far from one. It will be back to business as usual. In two weeks, one month, one year etc… will this be an issue. Will it be remembered. I think not! Will the advertisers stay out because “Dave” did not follow proper issue/crisis response procedures? I think not!

        There is to much money to be made by all who rely on the David letterman show. His audience, advertisers, viewers, commentators, PR professionals, business executives etc… all know what kind of comedian Dave is and what kind of comedy is featured on the Late Show. In my opinion, and that of Dave,maybe the jokes were questionable, but not so bad that he he had to apologies twice. He did so sincerely the first time in true Mr. Letterman fashion.

        As for Ms. Palin, apparently she has not got the lime-light bug out of her system.

        As a PR professional, If David Letterman was my clients (I wish, I wish, I wish), I would just advise him to keep kids, minors and young adults out of any future sexual joke. But that’s just common sense!

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