The New Queen of Crisis Communications


It’s been 25 years since the infamous “Tylenol scare.” Johnson & Johnson’s deft handling of the matter has been a case study in every crisis communications textbook ever since.

Oprah Winfrey’s response this week to allegations of sexual abuse at her school for girls in South Africa should be studied just as widely.

If you only saw snippets on the news, I encourage you to watch all of her seven-minute statement by clicking on the image above. Or you can find the entire 30-minute news conference here, including a transcript.

Every scandal-stricken CEO should take notes:

* Take the hit. There’s no waffling in Winfrey’s statement—or protective backpedaling to make the situation look “not so bad.”

* Spell out the details. Winfrey provides a day-by-day accounting of events, beginning with the first phone call alerting her to the problem. The details paint a picture of an engaged CEO, not a pampered celeb.

* Be there. You can’t delegate this stuff. Winfrey was on the ground, in South Africa, working with authorities and meeting with—and apologizing to—every girl and her parents.

* Take real action. Winfrey’s response wasn’t tepid—she cleaned house. Giving cell phones to all the students (programmed with her phone number) may look like a “PR move,” but it was a good one.

* Create a hero (it’s not you). In her closing, Winfrey applauded the 15 students who spoke out, calling them “a new generation of youth in South Africa, who fearlessly take back their voices.”

It’s smart stuff—and effective, too. Two days after her press conference, there’s barely a trace in the news. Other CEOs wish their dirty laundry aired out as quickly.

Better yet: The attention generated by the issue may help to embolden other victims of sexual abuse to speak up and seek help.