How to apologize

Posted on October 7, 2009 
Filed Under Crisis communications

In crisis communications, we tell our clients that if they have to apologize – do it quickly and sincerely and suggest specifically the remedial action you will take.

This advice, however, gets lost when a crisis hits. The human thing to do is take things personally, get caught up with heated emotions, be in denial, try to deflect and play the blame game.

When the sh*t hits the fan, we have heard CEOs and public figures explode and wonder how such “terrible things” could happen on their watch.

David Letterman seemed calm and was his usual deprecating self when he told his audience his “little story” of “terrible things” on Oct 2, 2009.

He claimed he was the victim of an alleged US$2m extortion bid by someone, later named to be Robert ‘Joe’ Halderman, an Emmy-winning producer of CBS’ 48 Hours Mystery.

Apparently Halderman was going to write a screenplay and a book exposing him for “creepy stuff” he did. Dave then told the audience this: “And the creepy stuff was that I have had sex with women who work for me on this show. Now, my response to that is -‘Yes, I have.’ ” That statement was met with laughter and applause.

He then went on to say: “I have had sex with women who work on this show. And would it be embarrassing if it were made public? Perhaps it would. Perhaps it would. Especially for the women.” Again more laughter and applause.

Halderman was arrested after allegedly trying to cash a fake cheque made out to him and has since pleaded not guilty to the charges.

On Oct 5, Dave continued to use the show, now with an obvious rise in ratings, to paint himself as “the victim” and try to deflect the odd confession he made:

As I suggested in a previous post, by talking about his previous indiscretions, Letterman immediately made every woman in his employ, currently and previously, fair game for the media.

His disclosure definitely warranted the apology to his staff and his “horribly hurt” wife.

But here’s the blunder in the statement that comes at 1:00 into the vid: “I’m not having sex with these women – those episodes are in the past.”

Sorry, Dave, that sounds like a flip-flop to me. You are sorry for mentioning the “creepy stuff” but you are not sorry for doing it, and now even deny having done anything wrong.

Letterman seems to suggest this: “Having sex with interns, subordinates and women who rely on you for their pay cheques, bonuses, raises and positions, is okay, as long as it was a LONG TIME ago, and no one complained about it publicly.” To underline it, he says at the tail-end that “I still feel I did the right thing.”

To me, that just seems like a 62-year-old man trying to wiggle out of past indiscretions, without being accountable for his actions. Shades of Roman Polanski and Bill Clinton come to mind.

CBS’ rules and guidelines on the conduct of its employees points out may not apply to Letterman because he isn’t in their employ. He merely heads Worldwide Pants Inc, the production company which produces the show for CBS, and also The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson and previously, Everyone Loves Raymond.

I think as apologies go, Letterman comes across as sincere and genuine. But by repeating his indiscretions on camera, he’s digging a deeper and deeper grave on his image.

By throwing wisecracks such as “This is only phase one of the scandal. Phase two: Next week I go on ‘Oprah’ and sob”, Letterman seems to be capitalizing on the scandal. He continues to feed the flames, daring the media to find out more, while profiting from the revelations with a higher ratings boost.

Wrong move, Dave. You need to suspend the show, take a vacation, save your marriage, and stop speaking out in any platform for awhile.

Here’s Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz’s take on the unfolding crisis:


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