Last week David Letterman took two shots at two of his favorite subjects: A-Rod and Sarah Palin. He told a joke about how A-Rod knocked up Palin’s daughter during a recent game. The problem was it wasn’t Bristol, Palin’s 18 year-old daughter. It was Willow. Her 14 year-old daughter.
The Palin camp expressed it’s outrage, rightly so and that had Letterman back tracking. It didn’t help when advertisers started to bail on the show. Letterman is right in the middle of signing a two-year extension with the network and facing a younger rival who reminds me of Dave in his earlier days, Conan O’Brien.
All of that being said the focus here is on Letterman. In his apology Letterman states, “Oh, boy, now I’m beginning to understand what the problem is here. It’s the perception rather than the intent.’ It doesn’t make any difference what my intent was, it’s the perception.”
There are some key takeaways in his admission that apply in communications.
The first takeaway is the fact that it doesn’t matter what you want to say, it’s what your audience hears is what matters most. As communicators we talk about controlling the message. To the non-communicator, controlling the message may sound like we’re holding back information or not being completely forthcoming. However, when we control the message, we’re crafting not what we want to say, rather what we want the public to takeaway. Knowing what your desired outcome of you message is so important. Remember, as Letterman has come to understand, it’s about perception not your intent.
The second takeaway is a basic communication strategy: knowing when to say something, is just as important as what you say. Letterman didn’t have all the facts on who was at the game. In fact, he was probably reading a joke someone on his staff wrote. He didn’t have the facts, but that doesn’t matter now. It would also probably help if he laid off Alex Rodriguez and Palin. I think he’s the only one keeping them in public view.
One thing is for sure no one is laughing now. It’ll be interesting to see if the spotlight remains on him for awhile. He’s used to being the satirist, not the one people are laughing at.