Don’t “Pull a Paula"

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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.

Then came the apologies. THREE different apologies, to be exact. (Watch them here, here, and here).

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."


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Indiana  |  July, 03, 2013 at 09:02 AM

Really? Are these the types of articles this site is going to begin posting for it's readers? I'm embarrassed that I even have to post something like this on this site. Disgusted in Indiana

Charlie Powell    
Pullman, WA  |  July, 03, 2013 at 10:23 AM

Emily makes an extraordinarily important point; be ready for a crisis. As a person who teaches crisis and risk communication at Washington State University, her advice is spot on. There is another point to be made however; consider what you have on hand already that could become a crisis. Retrospective studies show clearly that from 80 to 98 percent of all crises were known to have been a problem before they blew up. For a variety of reasons, these "smoldering crises," were not dealt with to eliminate the potential for escalation to a crisis. Some reasons are legitimate, most are not. Crises are expensive and often can have lasting impacts far into the future. Consider the extraordinary safety record of nuclear power and the U.S. Navy versus the public perception of extreme risk for domestic power generation. Whether you accept so-called "political correctness," or not makes no difference. Consider asking yourselves as pork producers what have I got that could blow up beyond things I don't like? Sexists? Racists? Have you done background checks on hiring to ensure a sex offender is not among your employees? Illegal aliens? Former felons? Former DUIs driving your vehicles? Unsafe workplace waiting for an accident? Environmental violations? How about that rail line that runs behind your operation; what do they carry that would affect you in a derailment? Have you invited the Fire Marshall out to tour your facilities and offer recommendations? The Sheriff? No one can fix them all in time to prevent a crisis but you can fix some of them... and you should.

July, 03, 2013 at 10:32 AM

I agree with Kirk. What does this have to do with the Pork Industry??? If we want to be barraged with this kinda of a story we can just look on facebook or any other news tabloid. Besides, I like Paula and always will. Give us more pertinent news.

Emily Meredith    
Arlington, VA  |  July, 03, 2013 at 01:14 PM

Charlie, I really like your point that everyone should do an evaluation about what in their business could prompt a crisis. At the Animal Agriculture Alliance we help a lot of our members handle things that have become a crisis when the crisis is already upon them. If everyone takes a critical look at their operations, perhaps we in the entire industry will benefit from less scandals that scare consumers and bring more criticism. My point wasn't that everyone has a loose cannon in their ranks who might make comments like Paula, but rather that we in this industry have faced our share of bad press the last several years and we need to start being proactive. Part of that means looking at where you, your employees and your business is vulnerable and correcting those vulnerabilities before its too late.

Florida  |  July, 07, 2013 at 07:29 PM

Lets get real. If any who has a Southern Heritage, is over 40 years old, is white, and was raised in the South says that they have never used the "N" word there is just one word for them LIAR!!! My father's grandfather fought in the Civil War. In the Southern home I was raised in that was the word that was used. It was not used with hate nor with malice it was just the word that was used, no different that a Jewish person being referred to as a Jew or a Japanese being referred to as a Jap. What was done to Paula was terrible. What should happen is anyone who has ever in their life used the "N" should never step foot in another store that canned Paula. Obviously they do not want our kind in their. Wonder if there is ever going to be such an uprising over the word Cracker?


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