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Kneale: 4 Lessons of the Letterman Scandal

The David Letterman sex-and-extortion scandal that he so humbly, and humorously, disclosed on his own show last night is at once shocking . . . and perhaps all but inevitable.

The more important takeaway is the brilliance with which the show host handled the whole thing—and the lesson it offers to all senior execs who stumble into personal scandal. We’re gonna talk about it today on Power Lunch, which airs noon to 2 p.m.

Letterman resorted to "The Sipowicz Defense," as in the barrel-chested, reformed-drunk detective Andy Sipowicz on the old ABC cop drama, "NYPD Blue." In interrogating sure-bet suspects, he would advise them, "You better get out in front of ’dis."

Read: Before we decide to beat the daylights outta you.

Letterman knew he was about to take a brutal beating. In the media. So he waged a pre-emptive strike. He pulled a Sipowicz.

Much the same advice is peddled by crackshot crisis consultants such as Washington-based Lanny Davis and Los Angeles-based Mike Sitrick of Strick & Co. They are all too experienced in this form of damage control.

By now it is a cliché: Powerful man in top position of authority, the lure of far younger women

David Letterman
(AP)
David Letterman

on the bottom as admiring acolytes or career-climbing opportunists. (Or innocent and exploited victims of the television underclass, if you're a sex-harassment lawyer looking for an easy tort, in what amounts to a legal form of the same kind of extortion).

Lanny Davis advised the Clinton clan in the aftermath of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Mike Sitrick has repped a rogue's gallery of bad boys, among them “Girls Gone Wild” creator Joe Francis, convicted last year of consorting with a teenage girl; and Broadcom ex-CEO Henry Nicholas, he of the alleged sex-lair and ecstasy parties and the subject of a profile the new issue of Forbes magazine.

Getting out in front of a scandal might have helped a passel of lust-struck lotharios: former U.S. Sen. John Edwards, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, maybe even disgraced former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer. Instead, news of their failings and foibles broke elsewhere first and blindsided them.

The morals police, lamentably and increasingly, apply the standards we expect of our elected officials to corporate executives—private citizens whose personal behavior shouldn’t be germane unless it hurts the business.

In 2005 came the ouster of hotshot turnaround artist Harry Stonecipher, then CEO of Boeing, for having a consensual affair with a female exec who didn’t report to him. In 2007 Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide canned chief executive Steve Heyer amid allegations he made inappropriate advances to women at work; he left without a $35 million pay package.

Around the same time, BP chieftain John Brown had to step down after disclosures of his romantic relationship with a younger man in a company-owned apartment. (A tenuous link at best: would we care if he’d been bedding a woman?) He lost a $7 million bonus.

So arm yourself. Herewith a few key points for mounting the Sipowicz defense if you find yourself in salacious trouble:

--Take the hit only when you have to—but then do it immediately. In a perverse way, Letterman was lucky. The alleged extortion attempt by a CBS producer diverted the harshest part of the spotlight away from the show host and toward his accuser.

If that threat hadn’t emerged, should he bother to reveal that, long ago in the past, he had dallied with the staff? Probably not.

--Control the venue. Letterman was able to shape the news by revealing his shocker in the friendliest environment possible: in front of his own fans, on his own CBS show, after 11:30 at night. Soon we’ll see the famous pre-emptively reveal their flaws on their own Twitter accounts. (You can follow me at twitter.com/denniskneale; brace for confessions.)

--Joking about it is forbidden. But even more important: no tears. David Letterman violated this rule, but the guy is a professional. A CEO might have heard only the deafening chirp of crickets if he had tried the same punchline: that it would be embarrassing if the news got out—especially for the women.

--This last bit is cribbed from an old source of mine, the renowned Thomas S. Murphy, who put together Capital Cities/ABC and ultimately sold it to Disney. The best strategy is to avoid behavior that would lead you to need all this advice in the first place.

As Murphy always put it: Never do anything you’d be uncomfortable reading about on the front page of your local newspaper.

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