Oprah Incident: Swiss Boutique’s PR Goes to Hell in a Handbag

 Oprah Incident: Swiss Boutiques PR Goes to Hell in a Handbag

THE PR VERDICT: “B” (Good Show) for Oprah Winfrey.

Until recently, perhaps only those in a certain income tax bracket knew the name Trois Pommes in Zurich. That changed last week, when the high-end boutique became more well known – and not just for its pricey merchandise. Trois Pommes is the shop where Oprah Winfrey, the African-American entertainment magnate and billionaire, said a sales clerk refused to show her a handbag because, the clerk said, she couldn’t afford it. Winfrey, who was in town to attend the wedding of singer Tina Turner, said she politely requested to see the $38,000 bag three times but was rebuffed each time. She finally left, without making a scene. Winfrey recounted the incident during an interview to promote her new civil rights-era film, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, in response to a question about ways in which racism has affected her life. The revelation, which has generated international media coverage, is a black eye for Swiss hospitality. Both the Swiss Tourism Office and Zurich Tourism have apologized to Winfrey, which only slightly makes up for the feeble explanation by the owner of Trois Pommes, Trudie Goetz, who claims the encounter was a “classic misunderstanding.” The clerk, Goetz said, is a native Italian speaker who thought Winfrey had asked to see the bag in less expensive materials. This isn’t the first time the 59-year-old media mogul, Oscar-nominated actress and philanthropist has been snubbed while trying to buy a tony handbag. In 2005, Winfrey was locked out of Hermes store in Paris when she tried to enter just at closing time. THE PR VERDICT:  “B” (Good Show) for Oprah, who handled both the incident and the disclosure of it with characteristic grace. THE PR TAKEAWAY: Emotion is often the enemy of productive discussion. Of course, Winfrey would have been within her rights to kick up a fuss, either at the time or in the press, but such behavior can sometimes backfire (“You were discriminated against while shopping for a $38,000 purse? Poor you!”).  She took the higher road, however, and that has made her story more compelling. By recounting the incident calmly and with perspective, Winfrey has prompted a serious discussion on racism and how it transcends bank accounts and borders.

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Christine Walton Brennan About Christine Walton Brennan

Christine Walton Brennan is the former Head of Corporate Communications for Marsh & McLennan Companies. She also managed media relations at banking giants UBS and Merrill Lynch, and was a journalist with Bloomberg News. In 2011, Christine embraced her midlife "realization" and is now a Registered Nurse in New York's Hudson Valley.

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