Please note the correction in the seventh paragraph of the post below, which was brought to my attention today, October 4, 2008 when a reporter from People magazine called me for a comment regarding this story. The story states that Oprah’s former headmistress has filed a defamation suit against Oprah, the Huffington Post, and me.
It wasn’t until today that I learned that I had erred by saying that the former head mistress was charged with a crime. I deeply regret the error and apologize to former headmistress Nomvuyo Mzamane.
Journalists, including those at blogs, make mistakes, and I am no different. I’m a firm believer in full compliance with the law, with the Public Relations Society of America’s Code of Ethics and with the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, and know that I was in compliance with all three in this case.
* * *
CEOs or anyone else who finds themselves in the middle of a crisis can take a few lessons from Oprah Winfrey.
Perhaps she had an entire team of crisis counselors. Or maybe the numerous crises she’s had to deal with in her personal and professional lives made it easier to manage the latest scandal: charges of sexual abuse at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy in South Africa.
What Oprah did in the weeks following the first reports of abuse in early October serve as a textbook example of how to react during a crisis.
—In October, when she first heard the news, she immediately hired her own independent investigative team, headed by a former detective and commander of the Child Exploitation Unit of the Cook County Sheriff’s Office in Chicago, to investigate.
—Tempted to talk to the press, she kept quiet, on the advice of investigators who told her not to say anything until they made an arrest.
—She traveled to the school to personally talk with students and their parents and to encourage the girls to come forward with whatever other details they could provide. Several did.
—Oprah “cleaned house from top to bottom.” She fired the head mistress who was later charged, and she removed all the remaining dorm matrons and replaced them with faculty members. She also admitted that the process of background checks was inadequate.
—She accepted full responsibility, stressing “the buck stops with me.”
—She spoke with heartfelt honesty about what happened, calling it “one of the most, if not THE most devastating experience of my life.” She talked about how, when she first heard the news, she cried for a half hour while walking from room to room in her house, in shock.
—Oprah is in the process of buying cell phones for all the girls so they can contact her personally if other problems arise.
Many of the steps she took are those recommended by crisis counselor Jonathan Bernstein, who was my guest during a teleseminar on “How to Keep the Media Wolves at Bay.”
She involved law enforcement authorities at once. She assumed full responsibility and vowed to do whatever possible to make sure it doesn’t happen again. And she spoke compassionately about how bad she felt.
Tell the truth. Tell it all. Tell it first and tell it fast. They’re the commandments of crisis management.