|Oprah’s Exceptional Communication Skills
by Steve Adubato, Ph.D.
Strong leaders step up when the heat is on and the tough questions
are fired right between the eyes. 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. It never works.
Enter talk show queen Oprah Winfrey, who conducted a brilliant
press briefing this week to answer every tough 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 alarming reports, particularly because Oprah had been
the victim of rape growing up. Yet, in that press conference, Oprah
demonstrated that superior communication skills are a must in a
crisis. Her words and actions proved how a leader should handle
a serious problem. Some questions to consider.
Q—What specific leadership and communication
skills did Oprah demonstrate?
A—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. She
got out ahead of the crisis and dismissed school administrators
who should have been more on top of the situation. She immediately
communicated internally with all key stakeholders. She showed sensitivity
and compassion for the girls involved. Instead of hiding behind
a cadre of lawyers and PR types, Oprah was front and center—not
only explaining the relevant details of the case, but unlike most
executives, she allowed 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.
Q—How did Oprah communicate directly to
the alleged victims at the school?
A—Oprah was candid and empathetic, which
sent a powerful message to all of us 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. Says Oprah, “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.”
Q—What communication and leadership lessons can others take
away from Oprah’s handling of this crisis?
A—The fields of business, government and the media are inundated
with case studies of people who got it wrong when facing a crisis
or scandal. Whether it’s recent scandals involving Madison
Square Garden and the NY Knicks, former Attorney General Alberto
Gonzales, US Senator Larry Craig or even the New York Times (think
Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal); top executives consistently miss
the mark when it comes to the communication game. Now we have a
new case in crisis communication that sets the bar extremely high
for all leaders. Oprah is more than just the queen of daytime talk.
She is the most current CEO profile that will be included in any
serious examination of how to handle a media onslaught and a huge
potential public relations problem when something terrible happens
to an organization that you lead.
Dr. Steve Adubato coaches and speaks on the subjects of communication
and leadership and is the author of the book "Speak from the Heart."
Write to him at The Star-Ledger, 1 Star-Ledger Plaza, Newark, NJ
07102, or click here
to contact him through this web site.