Ahh, Paula Deen. Whether you’re a fan of butter, good ol’ southern cooking and the once-voluptuous Paula Deen, or not, I’m sure you’re familiar with the public relations crisis that just keeps giving.
Last week, Ms. Deen faced major criticism for statements made in a deposition for a discrimination lawsuit by one of her former employees. The story originated with The Enquirer on the morning of June 19, and was later confirmed by the Huffington Post (which obtained copies of a deposition transcript), that afternoon.
In that document, Ms. Deen admitted that she had tolerated racist jokes and had made racist remarks. She mentioned that most of these jokes were about Jewish people, black people, gay people and "red necks." Some reports indicate that Ms. Deen also tolerated pornography in the workplace.
Ok, admittedly not great. But things went from bad to worse when the “Twitterverse” got hold of these juicy tidbits. The buzz was so ferocious that on June 19, the hash tag #PaulasBestDishes was trending on Twitter.
On the evening of June 20, Paula was skewered on numerous satirical shows, including The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. On the morning of June 21, Paula was scheduled to appear on The Today Show with Matt Lauer to field some (likely, soft-ball) questions. She bails, citing exhaustion.
That afternoon, Food Network issued a public statement indicating they would be dropping Ms. Deen – and all three of her shows – effective immediately. Well-known companies, from Smithfield (on June 24), Walmart and Caesar’s (June 26), Novo Nordisk and Target (June 27), QVC, Kmart, Sears, Walgreens, JCPenny and her own publisher (June 28) dropped Paula’s endorsement deals.
While several big-name celebrities have come to Paula’s rescue (Jimmy Carter and Ann Rice, to name a few), the damage is done. Paula Deen will likely never again be the queen of butter.
The interesting thing, for me, is: How did everyone seem to think that Ms. Deen’s reputation for Southern hospitality and honesty wasn’t long-tarnished before these allegations surfaced? Doesn’t anyone remember that “little” diabetes cover-up?
I hate to be the bad guy here, but daggonit, Paula has made it hard for me to say anything in her defense.
Where were those apologies three days earlier? For that matter, why were there three different apologies (none of which were particularly heart-felt or convincing)? Where was her crisis management team? Now, that’s a group whose contract should definitely be terminated!
Why did she bail on the Today Show, a show where millions of politicians caught with their pants down and athletes on steroids have apologized to rave reviews (doesn’t Paula know you don’t anger Matt Lauer!)? Where was her social media presence?
Where was her team in meeting with her retail partners? Or, for that matter, once she knew certain retailers were going to drop her, where was her team in ensuring they all did it on the same day, thus avoiding a longer news cycle?
So many questions; so few answers. Do I feel badly for Ms. Deen? No!
Why not, you ask?
Well, because of all the unanswered questions above. It’s often said there are two types of companies in this world: those that have had a crisis and those that will have a crisis.
Paula et. al. should have been preparing for the advent of a crisis much sooner (especially if those close to her realized that she wasn’t very politically correct sans cameras…porn and profanity, Paula, really?!?!?). They should have had an action plan in place.
When the story broke, it should have been a war room in Paula’s offices. Every one of her team should have been on the phone with one of her partners making apologies, and more importantly, asking how the team could help them deal with this crisis.
And most importantly, Paula should have apologized about three days sooner.
Say what you want in her defense (in fact, I love her recipes and show just as much as the next person), but, come on; this crisis could have had a different outcome if Paula had followed some PR 101.
Have a crisis team and plan in place. Please, don’t go it alone. Apologize (and mean it!). Reach out to your partners and ask to help them. Communicate with your staff. Don’t anger Matt Lauer.
And most importantly, “YouTube-proof” yourself. Don’t want to get caught in a compromising position? Don’t do something compromising. Manage your reputation before something bad happens (don’t, for example, lie about having diabetes).
Basically, don’t "pull a Paula."
Emily Meredith serves as communications director for the Animal Agriculture Alliance and manages all aspects of the communications strategy. She is responsible for the Issues Management Committee and coordinating effective responses to the issues of the industry.