Paula Deen’s Plight. Another Foot-In-Mouth Moment

Food Network was brought down last summer, in a deposition where she admitted that she had used the ‘n’ word in the past and considered a plantation style event with African-American employees dressed in anti-bellum attire.  What made her crisis more explosive was her feeble attempts at crisis communications culminating with her appearance on the Today Show where she claimed she (Deen)was the victim and didn’t understand why African-Americans might be offended by the ‘n’ word.  Sponsors were quick to show her the exit, with even the Food Network, cancelling her show.

Just a few weeks ago, it appeared she was looking to launch a comeback when it was announced that she had formed a new company, Paula Deen Ventures that received between $75 million to $100 million from Najafi Cos., a private-equity company led by Jahm Najafi, who owns BMG Music Service and the Book-of-the-Month Club.  She was greeted by adoring fans in Miami earlier this week. 

But now in interview with People magazine, she compares herself to NFL prospect Michael Sam who admitted that he is gay.  When discussing how the scandal from last summer has affected her reputation, Deen said, It’s like that black football player who recently came out,” “He said, ‘I just want to be known as a football player. I don’t want to be known as a gay football player.’ I know exactly what he’s saying.”

She also sees a double standard in how some television personalities were able to recover from scandal – Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson and fellow celebrity chef, Nigella Lawson –  with little lasting damage to their brands.  She believes she is a victim of the media in that she suffered more damage than did Robertson or Lawson.

So what is Deen doing wrong in her comeback attempt?

  1. She fails to apologize or admit she may have handled the situation poorly. Some degree of contrition is required for a comeback.  The public is often willing to forgive but they must hear an apology.  Deen is unwilling or unable to do this.
  2. Deen continues to appear indifferent at best and insensitive at worst towards racial and sexual preference issues. Last year on the Today Show, she told Matt Lauer she couldn’t understand why anyone might be offended by the ‘n’ word.  Now she compares her ordeal to what Michael Sam is going through.  Sam is facing an uncertain world and reception as he attempts to break into the NFL as an openly gay player.  In many ways he is this generation’s Jackie Robinson.   For Deen to compare herself to Sam is offensive and continues to demonstrate that she doesn’t get it.  The ‘it’ being how she may have offended people.  She shows no empathy and for a brand to be trusted and recover it must show empathy. Indeed her remarks in People were as subtle as one of her recipes.
  3. She continues to appear erratic which led sponsors to dump her last year. Her recent comments reinforce this erratic impression.  Businesses don’t want to be associated with erratic.
  4. She continues to go against her brand identity. Her brand was built as a sweet grandmother.  Instead she comes across as unpredictable, bitter and mean spirited.  She mentions Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson, as a brand that survived and says it’s a double standard.  Deen doesn’t understand that Robertson survived, albeit with lower ratings this season, because his remarks were consistent with his and Duck Dynasty’s brand, while hers were not. Robertson was transparent, what you saw is what you got, Paula Deen isn’t transparent and people are confused as to who the real Paula Deen is.
  5. She continues to play the victim as she did when she appeared on the Today Show last summer. That is a cardinal mistake to make.   Playing the victim in a crisis, as well as, appearing insensitive is a recipe for a disaster and a failure.

Paula Deen will never be as strong as she was and this remark reinforces this point.  There will be no Paula Deen comeback like there was for Martha Stewart.  The Paula Deen brand as it was before the deposition came out last summer is finished.   What is ironic is that had she a crisis communications plan in place and followed it effectively; her brand would be as strong if not stronger than what it was.  If ever there was a case study in why crisis communications is needed and what not to do in a crisis, it is Paula Deen.

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