Thursday, June 27, 2013

Paula Deen Situation Offers Few PR Lessons

I’m not going to rehash the whole Paula Deen saga other than to say if you’re not familiar with it, here’s an extremely superficial summary:

Paula Deen is the countrified and hugely popular Food Network star.  She’s built a mini-media empire out of her folksy, southern-style recipes and rather likable persona.  That all came crashing down over the past couple of weeks because she admitted to historically making racial slurs as part of the legal discovery process into allegations of creating a hostile workplace at one of her businesses.

Then came the bigger story, which was her disastrously failed attempts at damage control.  She posted a few YouTube videos where she apologized and came across as emotionally broken.  Her sponsors started to leave her, the latest one being Walmart.  The media has loved this story, and even made a story out of Deen not appearing for a pre-scheduled Today show interview.  The media then made a second story out of the re-scheduled interview.

Through it all, there has been arm-chair quarterbacking of how she’s handling this.

The fact is, not well. 

It’s difficult to determine what she did, what she said and what are simply allegations.  To be sure, what she already admitted is very damaging and does constitute use of the term “communications crisis.”

But she and her team have not handled it like a communications crisis. They have handled it like a middle school lunchroom drama.

Responsible crisis management in this case would require much more prudence and self-control on Deen’s part.  Let the legal process follow its course.  Issue statements.  To a certain degree, let people tweet or post on social media without feeling the need to respond to every rumor or allegation. 

Maintain self-control and accountability in your media interviews, but pick your spots. Don’t flood YouTube with what you think are sincere, if unpolished videos.  Your fans and the public are used to seeing a much more together TV personality.  YouTube is no exception.

Be more measured.  And when you’ve had time to breathe and regroup, then choose interviewers and interview settings where you can at least tell your side of the story, warts and all but without the emotionally charged, circus-like distractions.

Yes, Deen would still lose sponsors and this would still be a story.  But as it has turned out, her reaction to the story is now the bigger story, and that’s not good.  It demonstrates more of what not to do when faced with a communications crisis.  

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