THE BLOG
11/19/2007 04:17 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

What CEOs Can Learn from Oprah's Sex Abuse Scandal

Statement by Joan Stewart:

I've learned that in my November 7, 2007, blog post, "Oprah Scandal: A Lesson in Crisis
Management" and in a column I posted in Huffington Post on November 19, 2007, I
inadvertently erred by saying that the former head mistress of Oprah Winfrey's Dream Academy was charged with a crime. I deeply regret that error and apologize to former head mistress Nomvuyo Mzamane.

Journalists, including those on blogs, make mistakes, and I am no different. Once I learned of my mistake, I apologized. I'm a firm believer in full compliance with the law, with the Public Relations Society of America's Code of Ethics and with the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics, and know that I was in compliance with all three in this case.

***

What CEOs Can Learn from Oprah's Sex Abuse Scandal

When Oprah Winfrey admitted at a press conference that girls at her $40 million leadership academy in South Africa claimed they were sexually abused, it could have been a media feeding frenzy.

Two weeks ago, Winfrey called the scandal "one of the most, if not THE most devastating experience of my life."

Other than routine national coverage as soon as she broke the news, we've heard nary a whimper from the media, including the gossip rags and shows like Access Hollywood and Entertainment Tonight.

Was a hands-off-Oprah policy the reason?

It certainly wasn't back in January when The Smoking Gun uncovered "A Million Little Lies" about author James Frey's memoir A Million Little Pieces, touching off months of controversy and commentary from journalists, the publishing community and Winfrey's groupies.

This time, however, Winfrey handled the sexual abuse scandal so quickly, thoroughly and deftly that there's nothing more for anyone to say. Here's what CEOs everywhere can learn from the Queen of Daytime TV when they find themselves in the middle of a crisis:

--In early October, when Winfrey first heard allegations of sexual abuse, she immediately hired her own independent investigative team, headed by a former detective and commander of the Child Exploitation Unit of the Cook County Sheriff's Office in Chicago.

Lesson: Involve law enforcement as soon as you smell a whiff of wrongdoing.

--Tempted to talk to the press, she kept quiet, on the advice of investigators who told her not to say anything until they made an arrest.

Lesson: Give law enforcement the freedom to work quietly behind the scenes. Premature news leaks could have scuttled the investigation.

--She traveled to the school to personally talk with students and their parents and to encourage the girls to come forward with whatever other details they could provide. Several did.

Lesson: Take charge and don't be afraid to speak with the victims personally.

--Winfrey "cleaned house from top to bottom." She fired the head mistress who was later charged, and she removed all the remaining dorm matrons.

Lesson: Move swiftly to solve the problem.

--She admitted that the process of background checks was inadequate.

Lesson: When you screw up, admit it.

--She accepted full responsibility, stressing "the buck stops with me."

Lesson: When someone in your organization screws up, don't deflect criticism by blaming others. This would have been easy for her to do, a half a world away.

--She released all the details during a 30-minute press conference via a video link from Chicago, and posted the video and a transcript at her website.

Lesson: When you have bad news to announce, dump it all at once. Tell it all. Tell it first. And tell it fast.

--She spoke with heartfelt honesty about what happened and described how, when she first heard the news, she cried for a half hour while walking from room to room in her house, in shock.

Lesson: Show empathy and compassion. Even when speaking publicly, don't be afraid of a few tears. But never fake it.

--Winfrey said she was buying cell phones for all the girls at her academy so they can contact her personally if other problems arise.

Lesson: This goes far above and beyond what many crisis managers would have recommended. It proves she's removing all roadblocks to the victims communicating with her personally.

--She invited media questions at the 30-minute press conference.

Lesson: If you simply read a statement, then retreat, it looks like you're running for cover and that you have something to hide.

This brand of crisis management can teach more than just corporate CEOs about what to do when all hell breaks loose.

The Tampa Tribune, in an editorial, gives Winfrey an "A" in accountability and suggests: "Think of how different things might have turned out had Catholic Church officials confronted the abuse taking place in their parishes, instead of ignoring the problem or shuffling troubled priests from parish to parish."

The next time bad news hits, remember what Winfrey did. Your reputation could depend on it.