1/26/2006

Oprah Humbled by Online Community It's not often one gets to see Oprah Winfrey backpedal, but she sure started doing it today and she has the online community to thank for her precarious situation. Unless you've been living under a rock, you know by now that Oprah's book choice, "A Million Little Pieces" has created quite a controversy. The author, James Frey, was "outed" by the Smoking Gun web site (www.smokinggun.com)when it questioned Frey's truthfulness, particularly about time he said he spent in prison. Within moments of publishing the investigative report, bloggers went crazy offering their own opinion on whether Oprah should withdraw her support for Frey. After all, she was a major contributor to the book's meteoric rise on the bestseller lists. Frey appeared on Larry King and admitted he played loose with the truth in the book. Amazingly, Oprah called in to offer her continued support, suggesting that the overriding story - that Frey overcame a serious drug addiction to become a role model - was more important that the details of story. She said his inspirational story was what was "relevant," rather than the specifics behind the story. Well, today she finally fell on her sword, telling Frey on her show that she felt "duped" by him and now found it hard to talk with him. Oh really? So what happened to the whole relevance thing, O? I think I know. As soon as Oprah realized that her support of Frey was drawing massive criticism and making her look bad for appearing to support a liar, she suddenly saw the light and tried to turn the tide. She figured by bringing him back on the show, along with some journalists to comment on the situation, she could "set the record straight" that she does, in fact, highly respect the truth. I, for one, ain't buying the Big O's mea culpa. She either got some bad PR advice or chose to ignore good advice from the get-go, probably believing she knew best (she is, after all, an expert on just about everything). Interestingly - and not surprisingly - this whole controversy has created a windfall for Frey. Sure, he's a little humiliated (btw, he said the old deamons that drove his addiction caused him to lie too) but his book continues to sell like hotcakes. What's the lesson we can learn from this? 1) NO ONE, not even the O herself, is immune from criticism in an online world. Bloggers and web site publishers can make your life very difficult (or wonderful, depending on their opinions); 2) Controversy lives a much longer life now, thanks to the online writers and readers. You can't afford to ignore them. Moreover, you certainly can't afford to irritate them; 3) Relevant companies stay relevant by planning for controversies. Strategic crisis plans are an essential part of a company or celebrity's reputation management. They are no longer a "nice to have." They're a MUST HAVE; 4) The online world will continue to have enormous influence in how people think. Embrace bloggers and online publishers. They're just as real as the talking head you see every night on the evening news, but potentially way more powerful. We know Oprah will eventually overcome this debacle and move onto something else. She's lucky that way because her celebrity status allows her a platform to constantly defend herself until the story gets old or a new one comes along to replace it. Unless you're as famous as Oprah (and if you were, you probably wouldn't have time to read this blog), start thinking about how you can use her experience to your advantage.

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