by Steve Adubato, PhD

We’ve had a week or so to look back and get some perspective on one of the biggest media / crisis communication television events in recent years. That’s right, the Oprah / James Frey confrontation over the author’s lies and half-truths in his best-selling book, “A Million Little Pieces.”

To date, much of the analysis has been about Oprah, her performance and her motives. Yet, there are many communication lessons the rest of us (who may face tough questioning in work-related situations) can learn from James Frey’s performance.

Q—What was James Frey’s biggest communication mistake in the Oprah interview?

A—There were so many. The biggest was that he went into the interview without a coherent and credible message. He had no game plan. Without a message that you believe in, you’re in big trouble. Your message is your anchor. It is what you hold on to and fall back on when the questioning gets really tough. Sure, you answer the question, but you always go back to your message. Yet, Frey never developed one, which is hard to believe since the stakes were so high. Consider this message; “I’m ashamed of what I did. There is no excuse. I take full responsibility for being dishonest with you, Oprah, and your audience. I apologize to all the people who believed in me and my book, believing it to be true. I can’t go backwards, but I can do everything possible from here on to try to make up for this terrible mistake.”

Q—But would such a message really have made a difference with Oprah, who was clearly committed to embarrassing Frey on the air?

A—Mike Wallace once said, there are no embarrassing questions, there are only embarrassing answers. What made Oprah’s questions in the interview so bad for Frey was the way he responded. In crisis communication, it is not about winning or losing. For Frey or others in trouble, it is clear you are going to lose. The question is, how badly are you going to lose. Frey lost so big, largely because of the way he communicated, not because of what Oprah asked him.

Q—Beyond having a strong message and apologizing, how could Frey have really prepared for Oprah?

A—When communicating under pressure, it is critical that you identify the three or four toughest questions you are likely to be asked. (“James, why did you lie about the length of time you were in jail?”) Your goal is to identify these questions and then practice answering them BEFORE you face them for real. Oprah’s questions were not surprising. They were the predictable, yet Frey seemed stunned and confused when confronted with them. When you haven’t practiced how you are going to respond to tough questions you are likely to be asked, you have no business showing up for the actual event. (This is also true in meetings, sales presentations or other business scenarios.)

Q—How much did Frey’s communication style impact on public reaction?

A—A lot. Frey’s communication was halting, defensive, confusing and weak. At times, you couldn’t even hear what he was saying, because he was almost mumbling. He was also not proactive in his communication. (“Oprah, one important point I want to touch on is…”) Proactive communication is about not simply responding to a question as if Oprah was the prosecutor and you were on the witness stand. It means seizing the opportunity to communicate important points, whether you are asked about these things or not. Frey did none of this and was at the Oprah’s mercy, which is not a good place to be when the queen of daytime TV is angry at you for “betraying” her.