WHAT WOULD OPRAH DO?
As a lawyer, I represent clients who are required to undergo grueling depositions. Many arrive at preparation sessions believing the lawyers will “tell me what to say.” Overcome with anxiety and uncertainty about the process, they fear opposing counsel will trick, bully, or bludgeon them into responses which will destroy their case.
In reality, the best thing a lawyer can do for their client is to help them get in touch with the fundamental truths underlying their case. If a person is grounded in what they believe about the facts, the nature of the injustice, and the impact upon their lives, nothing will offer greater protection under hostile questioning. Wherever the cross-examination may lead, the witness is confident of where they need to go.
The power of fundamental truth extends well beyond the walls of a courtroom. In a media interview, especially those conducted in the context of crisis or conflict, people who allow their fundamental truths to drive the content and tone of their message, inevitably prevail.
It makes absolute sense to enter an interview with the preparation and discipline needed to stay on message under the most aggressive questioning. Those key messages, however, need to be drawn from the truths and commitments which are fundamental to the organization, the brand, and to you as a person. When a media strategy is rooted in genuine core values, the communicator is empowered to be passionate, energetic and credible.
So what do you do when the “truth” is inconsistent with who you are as a person or who you want to be as an organization?
Your product, tainted with cyanide, has been linked to the deaths of seven consumers.
An internal audit has uncovered how one of your high ranking executives spent corporate funds on lavish parties for his family and friends.
A non-profit school in South Africa which you founded to help young girls climb out of poverty has been rocked by a sex scandal.
Organizational leaders who successfully navigate these troubled waters know who they are, where they stand, and what they believe. They embrace the truth no matter how inconvenient it may be. And most importantly, they make a conscious choice about what role they will play in the unfolding story.
Every great investigative story may indeed need a villain, but every human story, regardless of whether it is hard, soft, or investigative, evolves in search of a vindicator. The public can forgive human weakness, bad judgment, and inattention to scandal, especially when the person in question has seized the moment to accept responsibility for the situation and taken action to fix the problem.
There is perhaps no better model of this approach than Oprah Winfrey’s response to reports that a matron at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy in South Africa had sexually molested a student. While the world media and the people of South Africa could have cast Ms. Winfrey as the out of touch, grandstanding billionaire villain, too busy to protect the innocent children she claimed to help, that storyline never developed. Winfrey embraced the ugly truth, flew immediately to South Africa, launched an independent investigation, and communicated her response to the scandal in a completely transparent manner. She chose to be the vindicator of the children who were harmed. Her strategy was genuine, rooted in the truth of who she is and what she is about as a person. Watch Oprah’s video statement:
Opray Responds to Scandal
Popularity: 25% [?]