PR Lessons from David Letterman

It’s the end of an era. Early Thursday morning David Letterman signs off as host of CBS’ “Late Show” after a 33-year-run on late night TV  (including 10 years as host of “Late Night With David Letterman” on NBC).

Whether introducing America to “Stupid Pet Tricks,” swimming in a large vat of breakfast cereal or having Larry “Bud” Melman promote Toast-on-a-stick (“Bread’s answer to the popsicle!”), Letterman is a testament to original content.

Creating original content—often with an anarchic quality—is a lesson communicators can take from Letterman. In homage to Letterman’s “Top 10” lists, here are the Top 5 PR lessons from the soon-departed late night king.

Make conversation an art. Amid an increasingly social media age—where 140 characters qualifies as communication—Letterman was a strong long-form interviewer, where the goal was to inform, educate and entertain, rather than simply push product and generate yuks.

Show off your personality, warts-and-all. Letterman could hardly be accused of pretense. Often, he could be cranky and/or ornery, with and without his guests. He didn’t try to hide those facets of his personality, but played them up because they were an authentic part of his brand.

Diverse guests bring diverse audiences. Not so much in the last several years—in which A-list celebrities predominated—but certainly during his NBC tenure Letterman didn’t think twice about featuring peripheral yet impossibly interesting guests, such as surrealist Brother Theodore and musician/painter Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet). And we’re forever indebted to Letterman for launching the career of Chris Elliot. Musicians credit Letterman with his eclectic taste, which has helped boost a variety of musical genres, including Americana. The takeaway for communicators: look beyond the usual suspects when trying to cultivate new relationships and partnerships. And don’t judge a book by its cover.

Tonality is everything.  The remarks Letterman made about the 9/11 attacks during his first show back after the crisis became one of his finest hours. His comments were humbling and sincere for a city and nation that had suffered incalculable loss. The comments were made “on the other side of the glass,” of course, but it was as if Letterman was sitting right next to you, providing comfort and kind words. He knew his audience; he knew the situation and acted accordingly.

Make your audience cringe (if only a little).  Letterman and his writers were masters at creating scenarios that were slightly uncomfortable, but always compelling. Case in point: A 1983 split-screen interview with actor Charles Grodin that Letterman conducted remotely, with Grodin sitting alone in the studio. PR News dares you to watch the video and look away. Bet you can’t. Same with PR marketing campaigns.  Nuke the ‘same old, same old’ and create strategies and tactics that are a little edgy, but not off-putting.

So long, Dave. It’s been real.

Follow Matthew Schwartz on Twitter: @mpsjourno1