A Deep-Fried PR Disaster

Poor Paula Deen. Within weeks, she went from high priestess of deep-fried food to pop culture pariah. She’s courted controversy before. (Remember that diabetes diagnosis/endorsement deal? Or her throw-down with Anthony Bourdain?). But she’s never seen anything quite like this. Earlier this summer, Deen testified under oath during a discrimination lawsuit that she had used racial slurs in the past. Soon after, more allegations—of the racist variety and beyond—surfaced. Within days, her business empire began to crumble. So what did she do wrong? And how could she have handled it better? Here are some thoughts:

  1. Don’t put yourself in that position in the first place.
    Everyone’s entitled to an opinion – no matter how ugly or wrong it is. But keep it to yourself. This applies to politics, too. Don’t assume everyone agrees with what you have to say or that they share your worldview. Chances are, they don’t. And that’s OK.
  2. Always assume you are being watched or that someone’s listening.
    Follow the Thumper rule: If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all! That’s especially true at work in front of your employees or co-workers. If you wouldn’t feel comfortable having it broadcast, don’t do it or say it at work.
  3. Face the music.
    Deen’s PR campaign took an early nosedive when she canceled an appearance on the TODAY show. Matt Lauer called her out for it and rightly so. Deen should have embraced that opportunity to regain ownership of the story and explain herself. Instead, by canceling, she let the media and the public fill in the blanks for her.
  4. Apologize… and get it right the first time.
    Deen’s PR team hastily uploaded an “apology” video to YouTube. It quickly garnered criticism for its shoddy production value – bad edits, poor lighting and a very “scripted” feel. When the world is watching, speak from the heart. Spend some time on it and get it RIGHT. Don’t apologize to the world on an iPhone video shot in a cluttered office with fluorescent lighting.
  5. Start planning your comeback.
    It’s been said that the only thing America loves more than a meltdown… is a comeback. Deen may be on the right track. She recently fired the PR team that mishandled this scandal. Here’s hoping she found professionals who can work with her behind the scenes to help her return to the spotlight.