Friday, October 9, 2009, 10:23 AM

PR lessons from Letterman and ACORN

This column was first published in today's edition of The Maryland Daily Record.

It’s not often I advise Baltimore’s business community to study a late night comedy show for tips on crisis communications. In fact, I never have … until now. But the crisis besetting CBS’ David Letterman is worth your attention. Here’s why:

Funnyman Letterman made a very unfunny announcement last week when he acknowledged having inappropriate relationships with multiple women who worked on his show at CBS. He also alleged that a CBS employee who had knowledge of the relationships attempted to blackmail him.

Letterman disclosed the transgressions to a stunned television audience last week. Not surprisingly, the news catapulted to the top of the national conversation the night it broke and has yet to subside.

Let’s be clear: Letterman’s conduct was inexcusable and the criticism he has received over the past week is justified. But the manner in which the late night host made the announcement can serve as a guidepost for businesses and individuals confronted with equally serious public relations crises.

The strategy is simple and generally effective: Tell it early, tell it all, tell it yourself.

Minimize the damage

Letterman could have hidden under the proverbial desk, hoping the news of his misbehavior wouldn’t break — a tactic that many businesses embrace before a crisis hits. Instead, he chose to go public in a lengthy and apparently sincere monologue. In doing so, he dictated how the news of the relationships would break, when it would break, and what the initial media coverage would look like.

Had Letterman remained silent, the explosive news would have inevitably leaked from any number of sources — his employer, his co-workers, the two employees involved, the prosecutors investigating the allegations of extortion — at a time of their choosing instead of his.

Letterman has received national condemnation since the announcement, and rightfully so. But responding forcefully to a PR crisis does not mean miraculously emerging from the scandal blameless. It means taking the lumps you deserve and, if you communicate sincerely and effectively, minimizing the damage to your brand. If you’re really effective, you may even win a little gratitude for respecting public sentiment.

Contrast Letterman’s response to that of ACORN, the community organizing group. Last month, several videos emerged of the nonprofit’s employees giving detailed advice on how to conduct illegal activities without drawing the attention of authorities.

Fill the information vacuum

When the controversial videos first surfaced, ACORN chose to ignore them. Days later — with the videos dominating national headlines — ACORN posted a statement on its Web site acknowledging no wrongdoing while blaming the videos on politicians and certain segments of the media.

It took four days for ACORN’s CEO to publicly condemn the conduct of the employees, 10 days for her to conduct an interview with a news outlet of national reach, and 12 days for the organization to announce that an independent panel would review the nonprofit’s operations. As each media cycle passed without a serious response from ACORN, the organization’s reputation suffered more damage than the videos alone could inflict.

To be fair, ACORN was blindsided by the videos while Letterman had time to consider his strategy before going public. But 10 days without a response befitting a national controversy is an eternity in a public relations crisis.

The volume of communications outlets today — in print, online, over the airwaves, by word of mouth — creates an information vacuum. The question is not whether that vacuum will be filled in a crisis; the question is who will fill it first.ACORN’s leaders didn’t tell it early, didn’t tell it all, and didn’t tell it themselves. They let their critics do the talking for 10 long days.

The public relations nightmares outlined above are not reserved for celebrities and controversial nonprofits. Sadly, ordinary places of work are regularly beset by executive misconduct and illegal activity by employees. If the public’s ire turns on your company for similar reasons, do your employees and your company’s brand a big favor: tell it early, tell it all, tell it yourself.

Henry Fawell is a communications consultant for Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice PLLC in Baltimore and was press secretary for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. His column appears monthly. His e-mail address is henry.fawell@wcsr.com

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