Saturday, October 3, 2009

Is Letterman "the Tylenol of talk-show hosts?"

I confess: it was me who shouted out "Richard Simmons" at the taping of the Late Show, July 4, 1994. It was the fumes.

David Letterman, crisis communications, and public relations: these are a few of my favorite things.

Today's Globe and Mail calls Letterman "the Tylenol of Late-Night Hosts," my colleague, Melanie Lee Lockhart, says that Letterman "gets it." Aaron Barnhart at TV Barn says, "Letterman’s confession on Thursday’s Late Show provided us with an instant cultural Rorschach test."

Me: I can't get enough of the fallout from this fascinating scandal, if that's even what this is. We all know by now that on Thursday's Late Show, Letterman revealed that he'd been the victim of an extortion attempt after having had sex with women who worked for him (he didn't make it clear when the sexcapades happened).

A few websites are saying that Letterman used "textbook" PR skills in his admission; I agree that it was a pretty incredible bit of public relations, though parts of his admission were anything but textbook - crisis communications never comes with a manual.

I mean, who's ever heard of 'fessing up to a laugh track before now?

Much has been said about the reaction of the studio audience that night, who gasped, laughed, giggled nervously, and ultimately applauded - however, it wasn't too surprising when you consider that there was no advance warning that Letterman would be making the announcement.

So, the crowd - who had been waiting in line all day and was primed to laugh - was ready for a classic comedy bit, then taken aback when that's not what they got. The early part of the announcement sounded a bit like Letterman was winding us up, so it made it all the more compelling when he didn't.

(As the guy who once yelled "Richard Simmons" at a taping of the Late Show (see above), I'm one to talk about goofy audience reactions.)

Whatever you think of his announcement, it made for some incredible television - too bad CBS keeps pulling it off of YouTube. If you want to see it, I've got the DVD burned and ready to circulate - YouTube - old school! - just make a donation to Talk Show Hosts Without Borders on my behalf, would you?

As the Globe and Mail says, and I agree, there are at least "Top 10 reasons why Letterman will survive his sex scandal." And good PR is just one of them.

Here's what Letterman has done right:

1. He made a statement before reporters had the story.

So he "got ahead of," and controlled, the story for much of yesterday's news cycle.

2. He admitted to what he did.

"Open, honest, forthright, and transparent," says an Edelman PR head in the Globe.

3. He made his announcement before the weekend.

Most reporters have the weekend off and TV viewing drops, allowing the story a chance to cool down.

4. He positioned himself as a victim and a villain at the same time.

His extortion story was indeed scary, which made him a victim first. The self-professed "creepy" part of his confession came later - the sex - and that somehow didn't seem quite as bad once we knew about the extortion attempt.

5. His announcement was delivered in the style of his show.

Funny, edgy, and honest - just how we like our Dave.

6. His apology spoke to his viewers.

It was an apology for cynics - no wallowing in self pity or bizarre explanations.

7. He made the crowd laugh.

When you can apologize and still make people laugh, you know they're still on your side.

8. He went for the VNR instead of the press conference.

His confession amounted to a 10-minute video news release - the tool that PR people use to "control the pictures and story." Letterman could've held a news conference with his wife and child behind him, but there's a reason why publicity is called "uncontrolled media."

9. He's back on Monday with Steve Martin.

When you get thrown from a horse, the best thing you can do is get right back up on it. Steve Martin is a guy who's known for his ill-advised affairs - he was dating Anne Heche when she abandoned him for Ellen! - so we're in for some more awkward laughs in the days and weeks ahead.

10. Even in his darkest hour, he was still funnier than Leno and Fallon.

'Nuff said.


  1. Leno's kick @ Letterman last night wouldn't have been so bothersome if it wasn't so unfunny. Leno has been embarrassed lately because his new show stinks and the ratings reflect that, and kicking a colleague when he's down for personal gain, just goes to show how much of a fool Leno really is.


    *Not* helping the PR battle.


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