Crisis Management: Apology – Oprah Style: Crisis Communications
Like most of you, I have a relative trying to kick a life-long substance abuse problem. Another family member, a therapist, recommended I read James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces for insights. Well, I got insights alright, not from his book but from his public spanking by Oprah Winfrey for lying throughout the memoir and taking her along for the ride as she endorsed the book.
Although I was out of town during her show, friends emailed me about it. One said, “Are you watching this?” Another upbraided Oprah for slamming Mr. Frey too hard and someone asked if I would write about it. To catch up with the rest of America I have reviewed what happened, so let me belatedly board the pundit train.
While I am probably the one thousandth person to say it, Oprah’s apology indeed was one of the best, unqualified mea culpas ever. She said, “I regret that phone call (to the Larry King Show supporting Mr. Frey in spite of early reports of lying). I made a mistake and I left the impression that the truth does not matter, and I am deeply sorry about that. …I have to say that I allowed that (emails from Mr. Frey supporters) to cloud my judgment, and so to everyone that has challenged me on this issue of truth, you are absolutely right.”
Further self flagellation for the error followed on her website with post-show video of folks criticizing her for sticking with Mr. Frey. Recovering addict Amy Weiland said of the King call, “I was not happy, not happy at all,” and another said, “I thought for a minute that you had lost your mojo.” Both applauded the apology. Oprah let it all hang out.
Nevertheless, she had violated the cardinal crisis management rule, “When did you learn about it and what did you do about it?” Weeks passed before she corrected her endorsement. That inaction cost credibility.
Author Mary McCarthy said “we are the hero of our own story.” One interpretation of that quote, in my opinion, is that when each of us stakes out a position we become so ego-invested in our rightness that it is difficult to reverse ourselves. I believe that is partly why it took Oprah so long to see the significance of her initial support despite Mr. Frey’s deceptions. I hope she has someone on her staff who can look her in the eye when necessary and say, “Oprah, I think you are wrong.”
As for Mr. Frey, shame on him for lying to those ensnared by booze and drugs, though I guess his actions should not surprise us. Horror writer Stephen King, a former addict himself, said in Entertainment Weekly, “Substance abusers lie about everything, and usually do an awesome job of it. I once knew a cokehead who convinced his girlfriend the smell of freebase was mold in the… bathroom.”
Mr. Frey surely saw the Oprah Express bearing down on him. He should have done what she did: flat out admit that he lied, why he lied, where he lied, and firmly apologize. His regrets and apologies seemed tormented out of him. Did someone counsel that full disclosure would prompt lawsuits? If so: bad advice. Homerun king Mark McGwire’s reputation is still haunted by his refusal to talk to a Congressional hearing about athlete steroid abuse.
Many readers say they do not care that Mr. Frey lied and say they still like the book. Again: not surprising. People want solace from heartache (or abuse) and seek gurus believed to have special insight or magic potions for personal change. This desperate search fuels the self-help industry and explains Pieces continuing as a best-seller.
Reportedly, Mr. Frey could not sell his book to publishers as a work of fiction, and so he called it a memoir. Unfortunate. The truth in our culture just got even harder to discern.