Former President Bill Clinton appeared on “The Late Show With David Letterman” a little more than a week before the New York-based talk-show host revealed a sex scandal of his own. One thing is clear: Mr. Letterman didn’t ask the former president for any advice.
Audience members might have been confused by Mr. Letterman’s bizarre monologue revealing a purported extortion attempt against him last week, but public relations experts say the confession on his home turf was a stroke of genius.
On Thursday night’s show, Mr. Letterman came back from a commercial break asking members of his audience if they’d like to hear a “story.” In a 10-minute segment, he detailed how a man confronted him with evidence of “creepy” behavior and demanded $2 million not to have a book or screenplay written about it. Robert J. Halderman, a producer for CBS’ “48 Hours,” has been charged with attempted grand larceny.
It wasn’t until about eight minutes into the monologue that Mr. Letterman said just what the man meant by “creepy” behavior: that the host had slept with his employees. The audience didn’t seem to know how to react. And when Mr. Letterman repeated and admitted the allegation - “Yes, I have. I have had sex with women who work on this show” - there was actually applause.
“They thought he was leading up to a joke. And when he said what he did, they laughed, which is a perfectly inappropriate response,” said Howard Bragman, a longtime crisis counselor in Los Angeles and author of the best-selling book “Where’s My Fifteen Minutes?”
Mr. Bragman said Mr. Letterman played it just as he would have advised him to.
“He made the best of a bad situation,” he said of Mr. Letterman. “Where else was he going to do it? He wasn’t going to do it on ‘Oprah.’ He wasn’t going to do it with Barbara Walters. What better place to do it than in your own home, with your own fans, in your own words? Rather than having somebody ask you tough questions.”
“It was as awkward a television experience as you could imagine. It was totally riveting,” Fraser Seitel, author of the textbook “The Practice of Public Relations” said of the segment. “Letterman, who is the consummate show business entertainer, milked it to perfection.”
Mr. Seitel, a senior partner of Andrew Edson & Associates, said he agrees with Mr. Bragman that Mr. Letterman’s monologue was savvy as well as strange. “In terms of a public relations response, what he did was exactly the right thing. As others have learned, including many of Letterman’s guests, if you live in public, you cannot a hide a thing like this. The axiom in public relations is, you get the bad news out as quickly as possible, and you try to do it on your own terms.”
Mr. Seitel added, “It’s what Bill Clinton, who was a Letterman guest last week, didn’t do.”
In fact, Mr. Letterman had two presidents on his show in one week - President Obama made an appearance the day before Mr. Clinton - and it gave the perennially second-place show a ratings high.
Mr. Seitel called it “ironic.” “On the day it was announced his ratings were the best in his history, he makes his revelation on the air.”
Tamika Morrison, director of communications at Atlanta firm TWS Marketing Communications, said the segment was “classic Letterman style.”
“He was able to do it so smoothly that everybody is thinking as an afterthought, ‘Wait, isn’t that wrong?’ ”
Conservatives still smarting from Mr. Letterman’s knocks on former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin certainly think so. The host took some heat for a vulgar joke he’d made about the former Alaska governor’s underage daughter.
“This is the same guy that went out there and criticized Sarah Palin for how she lived her life. Not only is he wearing no clothes, he’s wearing no clothes with his employees,” said Dan Gainor, vice president of business and culture for the Media Research Center.
However, Mr. Gainor can’t help but admire the way Mr. Letterman handled the situation.
“What a great way to hide the fact that you cheated on your wife, had sex with your employees and, by the way, sexually harassed everyone he worked with. When you sleep with some members of your staff, you create a climate of sexual harassment for everybody; they think that’s how they have to get ahead,” Mr. Gainor said. “It was classic spin. If he were to lose his show, Obama should hire him.”
He said Mr. Letterman seems to have succeeded in portraying himself not as a predator, but as prey. “Yes, no one should extort or blackmail money from David Letterman, that was wrong. Then again, maybe if he didn’t have sex with so many of his employees, he wouldn’t have been vulnerable to this person.”
Ms. Morrison condemns the host’s behavior, too. “If I could have a wish, it would be that advertisers were to understand their power and where to utilize it,” she said. “It’s sending a message to women. Hopefully, women advertisers that are in the position of owning advertising dollars can take a stand against that in their company.”
Not all viewers will have those strong feelings.
“Let me just say, extortion/blackmail is a bigger crime than messing around with somebody at the office,” Mr. Bragman said. “Frankly, the really shocking part about this isn’t that a celebrity was messing around with somebody. I’m surprised that this respected, award-winning news producer was reportedly the one doing the extorting. That makes your jaw drop.”
As Mr. Gainor said, “People are almost immune to thinking Hollywood celebrities have the morals of your basic tomcat.”
Mr. Seitel said that Mr. Letterman, who’s been on late night TV since 1982, has a loyal following. And this scandal could win him new viewers.
“In an entertainment sense, actually, ironically, incredibly, this could be good for Letterman because it creates buzz, it creates excitement. Look at his ratings on Monday, his show will be through the roof on Monday - the curiosity factor,” he said.
But can David Letterman remain David Letterman? Much of his comedy comes from poking fun at the foibles of others. Mr. Clinton’s Monica Lewinsky scandal was comedy gold for him, and he made many jokes about a man sleeping with an employee. He also poked fun at Clarence Thomas for purportedly propositioning an employee. Can he still do what he’s done best for so many years?
“Sure, he can, but he has to be part of the joke and be self-effacing in order for it work,” Mr. Bragman said. “I don’t think it’s going to turn him into a different person, but it might make him more empathetic toward what other people are doing.”
He also said that while this is the story everyone is talking about right now, it won’t be for long. “How many crises have there been this week? We had Mackenzie Phillips, we had Jon Gosselin, we had the tsunamis, we had earthquakes,” he said. “We had Roman Polanski. They just keep coming so fast and furious. Their half-life is about the same as the tuna salad in my refrigerator.”