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Paula Deen


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I remember when she did a special on her wedding to her current husband, and there was a scene where she and him were on his boat.. and attached to the boat was a confederate flag.. and I remember thinking that they were probably racist. Without any proof, I filed this scene in my mind.. but now with everything coming out, I remember this scene.

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What some people are missing (deliberately, I suspect) is that Deen's use of the N-word was brought up in a lawsuit brought by the former African American manager to show a recent long existing pattern of discrimination and racially hostile environment of her and her brother's restaurant.

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I read the entire deposition and retract EVERYTHING I SAID

The Breathtaking Collapse of Paula Deen: Lessons Learned

Last Wednesday the media released a transcript of a deposition by celebrity chef Paula Deen in which she acknowledged, using the N-word, thinking about throwing a plantation-themed wedding and finds racist, anti-Semitic and jokes about other groups amusing. She went on to say: “I can’t, myself, determine what offends another person.”

I think it’s safe to say that she now has a much clearer idea of what offends another person.

In just under 60 hours her racist rant went viral, her ill-conceived apologies collapsed like a bad soufflé and the Food Network said in a terse statement that it would not be renewing her contract when it ends next month. While the Food Network is not the most lucrative part of her reported $17 million dollar a year empire, it was certainly the engine that fueled the visibility for her wide-ranging associations, which include restaurants, cookbooks, food products, furniture, mattresses, hams, personal appearances and numerous other moneymakers.

When I first saw Deen’s deposition I predicted the collapse of her empire. Few things are more abhorrent to us than racism, or even perceived racism. Hers was not one word used in a heated moment; it was a shockingly insensitive acknowledgment of her innermost thinking and beliefs.

So what do we need to learn from this demise and what are our take-aways?

1) The first mistake Deen, and any business owner can make, is by allowing a business environment to have racist undertones and language and reportedly viewing of pornography in the workplace by employees. We all owe our employees an environment free of these kinds of pressures that clearly create an uncomfortable work environment.

2) Once Deen was sued, decisions need be made on what’s best for the business. I do what is referred to as “litigation-support” public relations. That is when there is a legal component to my representation including, but not limited to, lawsuits, divorces and other legal actions. I always explain to my clients that they have to deal with the court of law and the court of public opinion. You can win in one and lose in the other. In Deen’s case she may indeed prevail in the court of law, but she has already lost, big-time, in the court of public opinion.

3) I’ve seen it again and again; smart business people who are sued and refuse to settle because the lawsuit has no validity. Get over it. Maybe it does or maybe it doesn’t have validity. That’s not what you need to determine.

4) It’s a business decision. How much will it cost to settle? How much time and investment in attorneys will it take to fight it? What will be the impact on the business, vendors, customers and employees? And perhaps most importantly, can my business afford to fight this in public?

5) Privacy was something we had in the last millennium. We don’t have it now. Safe for a very few exceptions when minor children are involved in divorces, lawsuits are public documents. All filings, depositions and motions will and are public. Can your business survive this? Paula Deen’s couldn’t.

6) The next huge mistake was in Ms. Deen’s seeming lack of preparation for her deposition. She didn’t just say she used the N-word. When asked if she had ever used it, she said, “Yes, of course.” Cringe. Really? “Of course?” I learned early on from some very wise mentors that there are three acceptable answers in a deposition: Yes, no and I don’t recall. Her embellishment was her indictment.

7) Once the deposition leaked out, Ms. Deen’s lawyer came out with a statement to the effect that she would have her day in court. It was shockingly insensitive for a public figure. Insensitive to the fact that while waiting to go to trial, which can take months or years, she was bleeding to death in the court of public opinion. And knowing what was in the deposition, court would/will get massive media attention and she will go through N-word hell again.

8) The next day Ms. Deen personally agreed to talk to Matt Lauer of The Today Show. On Thursday The Today Show heavily promoted her personal appearance. There’s nothing wrong with doing a big interview with a major media outlet. But what she did do wrong was try to rush. This case, by virtue of a court date, had a long shelf life. Ms. Deen had a longer time to prepare for an interview and needed to know that. A few days, some intense preparation and coordination between her legal and PR teams would have been the best road.

9) Friday morning her team cancelled the interview and left The Today Show in an awkward situation. If they were indeed once her allies, she lost that. Worse, she made news in a bad way and dug a deeper hole even deeper.

10) To combat this she then put an ill-conceived video on Youtube.com in what served as her apology. It was trying to be slick, but was in fact odd, overly edited, poorly written and wreaked of inauthenticity. The response was instant and devastating. No one could imagine that such a video could have been made public.

11) That video was pulled and then she did a second video apology, this time to to Matt Lauer, saying she was exhausted.

12) Finally, she did a third video with a different apology to the public and by then it was clearly too little, too late.

13) Concurrently, The Food Network tersely announced that it would not be renewing her contract next month.

Understand, one well-conceived apology is fine. Again, don’t rush. Get it right the first time. Her ham-handed (pun intended) series of apologies served to make the story the lead item in the news that day and throughout the weekend. Strategically, you want the story to go away.

Saturday morning it was leaked that the reason The Food Network let her go was because of her handling of the situation. There are two parts to every situation: what happens and how you handle it. Clearly they had no confidence that Paula and her team could resurrect their image and they had no intention of going down with the ship.

Lesson? Hire a professional. Don’t do this alone. It’s like going to a country doctor for cancer or a heart attack. Bring in the best talent you can—this is an existential situation.

Paula Deen’s brand is not dead. She will salvage some relationships; she will mobilize some of her hard-core fans; and my guess is that her telegenic sons will take a bigger role as the brand transitions from Paula Deen to The Deen Family.

But to be clear, she will Never come back whole. She will never make as much money as she did. And this moment will be with her until the day she dies.

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