I had a chance to watch the news conference this week as Oprah Winfrey spoke to reporters in South Africa by satellite. As many of you know by now, the dormitory matron in her South African Academy for Leadership for Girls has been accused of indecent assault and criminal injury against six students.
Winfrey, a victim of childhood abuse herself, called the situation "one of the most devastating experiences of my life", and vowed to "clean house." From a public relations perspective, the situation could have damaged her reputation as a broadcast icon and motivational guru who vows to help people live their best lives. Well, it might have damaged anyone else's reputation but Oprah's.
Throughout the conference, Winfrey was the ultimate professional, and answered reporters questions with a skill and mastery only Oprah could perform. At times, she chose to let her personal side shine through, and came close to tears on several occasions as she described her initial tearful reaction to the news.
From a rational and business perspective, one has to wonder what measures were in place to hire and screen someone who was capable of committing such alleged acts.
During the conference, Winfrey admitted that the screening process was inadequate. With so much at stake, who was in charge of hiring the person subsequently charged with the crimes? Winfrey says she was not responsible for hiring at the school, yet who was the person entrusted to do so, and why were they chosen for this extremely important job?
From a public relations perspective, the Oprah brand will recover. Quick measures were taken to address the issue, and the patch up has already begun. Yet the fact that sufficient measures weren't in place to screen potential employees at the school still bothers me as a communicator and businessperson. Mistakes happen everywhere, but the fact that this happened in Oprah's school makes it seem all the more tragic.
Tragedy or not, it's a good example of how a bad situation can be turned around through the effective use of spin. The incident is being shown in its best possible light - as a chance for the girls to show their resolve and leadership skills, to be given the opportunity to heal, and to hold on to their best possible dream in life.
Do you think that any damage was done to the Oprah brand, in light of this incident? What do you think of the way Oprah handled the news conference, and the incident at the school?