PR Crisis Communication: Paula Deen

Beloved celebrity chef, Paula Deen, became not so beloved after a former employee sued Deen alleging she was subjected to racist comments and sexual harassment by Deen’s brother at one of her restaurants (Poniewozik, 2013). Among other comments rationalizing racism, during a disposition when asked had she ever used the “N” word, she matter-of-factly replied “Yes of course” (Tarper (2013). Deen welcomed herself to her very own 2013 crisis. Now that the smoke has cleared (supposedly) let’s discuss the risks to her brand and others from her public statements, how this crisis could affect different audiences, and how her PR staff could have managed the negative feedback more effectively.

Risk to Deen’s brand and others

Paula Deen’s comments cost her the loss of financial profit and relationships with many other brands. And the brands that let her go also took a risk in losing dollars from the sales of Deen’s products. Paula Deen’s book publisher Ballantine Books, severed ties even though Deen’s last six books had generated millions of dollars in revenue and the pre-orders of an unreleased book propelled it the number one best-selling spot on Amazon (Satran, 2013).

Effect on different audiences

Sure Deen has a following of devout fans who were probably not offended and would continue to support her, however there were a variety of people from various ethnic backgrounds and views who were.

TMZ, of course discussed the story in several of its shows. One in particular highlights the Deen’s deposition comments and the reaction of it multi-cultural staff. TMZ’s narrator calls Deen’s comments “quite appalling,” while non-African American and African American staff considered her comments to be “racist” and inexcusable. One African American staff members says “black people are mad as hell about this and so good luck in me getting a cook book d*** anymore” (TMZ, 2013).

 

This crisis also brought to public discourse the possible “double standards” in our society when it comes to protecting the rights of members of the LGBT community. Stone (2013), notes that while Paula Deen’s use of the “N” word pretty much destroyed her brand, Alec Baldwin, who lashed out homophobic slurs on Twitter, gets away with it “unscathed.”  Stone (2013) goes on to say that because Capitol One let Baldwin “get away with homophobia” by not severing ties with him, Capitol One “enables and even perpetuates a culture of discrimination.”

Effective management of negative feedback

Deen settled out of court with her former employee and in an attempt to repair her image, she apologized in a series of statements and videos. Although she shows regret by appearing to feel badly about the crisis (Coombs &Holladay, 2012), her apologies come off very insincere. In one statement she illustrates denial by shifting the blame on something else (Coombs & Holladay, 2012) – her southern upbringing (Collins, 2013). In another she is not forthcoming about what she is apologizing about, and in another she tries to defend herself by using the bolstering strategy- reminding stakeholders of her past good deeds (Coombs & Holladay, 2012).

A better way Deen’s PR team could have effectively handled the situation is by crafting a sincere apology that simply “accepts full responsibility for the crisis and ask stakeholders for forgiveness” (Coombs& Holladay, 2012 p.36) and addresses ways in which she will correct herself and prevent incidents like this from happening in her organization.

Perhaps a little something like this could have worked better:

I want to apologize to my staff, employees and anyone who has experienced discriminatory treatment at my places of business. Never is sexual harassment or use of racially charged language ever acceptable. I also want to apologize for my use of the “N” word in describing African Americans. It is never okay to use words to demean, put down, degrade or discriminate against  others. I am presently implementing diversity training for myself and staff to improve cultural respect and awareness and to provide a safe environment at my establishments for staff and patrons. I am truly sorry for my offensive and inappropriate comments and actions and ask for your forgiveness.

In a nut shell

Paula Deen’s use of the “N” word and rationalization of racism spawned a downward spiral resulting in reputation damage and loss of brand partners. Deen’s response to public opinion was a complete fail. Apologizing for wrong doing can help heal a situation but hers only made it worse. Her apologies were insincere. It seemed as though she was just apologizing because she was suffering from the public backlash. Her PR team could have managed the situation a whole lot better by crafting a forthcoming apology addressing the wrong done, to whom it was done to and corrective and preventative action taken.

 

References

Agnes, M (2013, June 24) Lessons to learn from Paula Deen’s three crappy apologies. [WebLog] Retrieved from http://melissaagnes.com/lessons-to-learn-from-paula-deens-three-crappy-apologies/

Collins, S (2013, June 20) Paula Deen blames Southern upbringing for N-word controversy. Latimes.com. Retrieved from http://articles.latimes.com/2013/jun/20/entertainment/la-et-st-paula-deen-blames-southern-upbringing-for-nword-controversy-20130620

Coombs.T. W., Hollady, S. J (2012) The handbook of crisis communication. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Malden, MA

Poniewozik, J (2013, June 20) Less than accidental racist: Why Paula Deen’s comments insulther fans too. Entertainment.time.com. Retrieved from http://entertainment.time.com/2013/06/20/less-than-accidental-racist-why-paula-deens-comments-insult-her-fans-too/

Satran, J. (2013, July 28)’Paula Deen’s New Testament,’ upcoming cookbook, dropped bypublisher Ballantine books. Huffingtonpost.com. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/28/paula-deens-new-testament_n_3518997.html

Stone, A (2013, July1) What If Paula Deen had called someone a fag? Huffingpost.com. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/avery-stone/what-if-paula-deen-had-called-someone-a-fag_b_3526186.html

Tepper, R (2013, June 19) Paula Deen racist comments, use of n-word allegedly caught on video[UPDATED]. Huffingtonpost.com. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/19/paula-deen-racist-comments-n-word-caught-on-video_n_3467287.html

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