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Oprah exhibits clear control over the media

Adubato: Oprah’s candid communication style in dealing with the media sends a powerful message to all those who manage and lead.
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Strong leaders step up when the heat is on and the tough media questions are fired right between the eyes.  Yet corporate America is littered with CEOs and other top managers who either duck, hide or try to sweep a serious problem or crisis under the rug when the media starts banging on their door.  But that never works.

Enter talk show queen Oprah Winfrey, who conducted a brilliant press briefing this week to answer every hard and pointed question about the sex abuse scandal at the elite South African school called the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy.  Fifteen girls at the school claimed that they were sexually molested by a “dorm matron.”

Given how proud Oprah was when the school opened, she was clearly distraught by these reports, particularly because Oprah had been a victim of rape growing up.  Yet, in that press conference, Oprah proved that superior communication skills are a must in a crisis.  Her words and actions demonstrated how a leader should handle a serious public relations problem.

On October 6, when Oprah Winfrey was informed of the sexual abuse allegations, she took charge and hired private investigators to find out what happened to the girls.  While she didn’t immediately go public via the media, she got out ahead of the crisis by dismissing school administrators who should have been more on top of the situation.  She quickly communicated internally with all key stakeholders at the school. 

She showed sensitivity and compassion for the girls involved and she got intimately involved in the process.  She focused on the details while still keeping the bigger picture in mind.  Then, when it was time to face the media, instead of hiding behind a cadre of lawyers and PR types, Oprah was front and center, apologizing personally to upset and concerned parents, telling them, “I’ve disappointed you. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”

She not only explained the relevant details of the case, but unlike most executives, she allowed a cross-section of journalists to ask any question of her after her powerful opening statement.  She responded in a direct, no-nonsense fashion.  Clearly, the judicial process must play out for the 27-year-old woman accused of sexually abusing these young girls in Oprah’s school.  Yet, leaders often cannot wait for the slow moving courts to dictate their communication and leadership time table in a crisis.  Oprah struck that delicate balance.

Further, Oprah’s candid communication style in dealing with the media sends a powerful message to all those who manage and lead.  She also serves as a role model for the girls in South Africa who were in her leadership academy and who are part of a society that doesn’t always encourage women to speak out.  Oprah said, “They represent — those 15 girls — a new generation of youth in South Africa who fearlessly take back their voices to speak up about their concern about their fellow classmates…This is really what we’re trying to teach. This is what leadership is all about: to use your voice, no matter what the personal consequences.” 

The fields of business, government and the media are filled with case studies of supposedly smart executives who got it wrong when facing a crisis, a scandal, or even a minor controversy.  Whether it is recent scandals involving Madison Square Garden and the New York Knicks, former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, U.S. Senator Larry Craig or even the NewYorkTimes (think the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal), top executives consistently miss the mark when it comes to the media and communication game. 

Now we have a case in crisis communication that sets the bar extremely high for all leaders.  Oprah is much more than just the media queen of daytime talk.  She is now the most current CEO profile to be included in any serious examination of how to handle a media onslaught and a huge potential public relations nightmare when something terrible happens to an organization that you lead.  

Write to Steve Adubato at