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Gini Dietrich

Paula Deen: A Lesson in Crisis Communications

By: Gini Dietrich | July 8, 2013 | 
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Paula Deen: A Lesson in Crisis CommunicationsBy Gini Dietrich

A couple of weeks ago, I hadn’t heard anything about the Paula Deen crisis yet, but was watching The Today Show when they announced she had canceled the morning’s appearance, citing exhaustion and the inability to physically move.

Al Roker said, “I hope she reconsiders. We’re friends of hers.” And I jumped to the web to figure out what was going on.

Well, reconsider she did when she finally appeared five days later for a one-on-one chat with Matt Lauer..

The interview began with a composed, but remorseful-looking Deen. It ended in tears as she referenced the Bible, paraphrasing, “He without sin should cast the first stone.” She admitted she made a mistake, and apologized. She said, “I is what I is and I’m not changing.”

He Who Casts the First Stone

As human beings, we love three stories: The overnight success, the great fall from grace, and the redemption.

Deen is at the second phase. Communications is critical for the redemption phase and to rebuild her reputation.

She should not have canceled the first interview, no matter how exhausted she was. With nearly a week in between the leak and her interview, she allowed others to tell her story for her.

After canceling the interview she released video that was oddly edited (later deleted from YouTube), and then released a second video that allowed her to have her say, but didn’t allow for questions or comments.

Then came the longest five days of Deen’s life. Unfortunately, there are many case studies Deen and her people could have turned to for reputation crisis advice. But they chose to instead use time as a defense strategy, which no longer works in our 24/7, digital world.

Why Has it Gone So Wrong?

Five days in our digital, 24/7 world is a lifetime. It provides plenty of time for others to tell your story. One of the things she said to Lauer is how hurt she is that people she doesn’t know are telling her story for her.

Unfortunately, this is what happens when you aren’t the one to tell your story. Others tell it for you and it may or may not be true. But in the court of public opinion? We make up our own minds based on the information that is given to us at the time. From Deen’s perspective, it’s really hard to disprove a lie without being seen as defensive.

Take Tiger Woods as an example. When he crashed his car after his former wife beat it with a golf club, the media went to town, trying to find anyone who knew him in the fourth grade who could talk about what they thought had happened. Is he a sex addict? Was he having multiple affairs? How would this affect his golf game?

It wasn’t until he told his story days later that things began to die down. But, by then, the damage was already done.

For Deen, the same thing happened. In order to have a story to fit the 24/7 news cycle, journalists looked for anyone and everyone who has known Deen or worked with her at one time. Those people molded the story while Deen pulled herself together so she could be interviewed live.

Crisis Communications Done Well

So what could she have done differently?

As painful as this would have been, the second she was deposed, she should have gone public with it. It’s likely against every attorney’s counsel to do that, but it would have allowed her to tell the story herself, leaving no room for anyone to speculate.

  • Apologize…and mean it. It’s amazing how well “I’m sorry” works when you genuinely mean it. Not “I’m sorry, but…” Just a plain old, I’m sorry and this is what I’m going to do to fix it.
  • Time is of the essence. All it takes is a tweet, a Facebook update, or a video to change a person’s mind about you. When Deen learned of the deposition leak, she should have been on a plane to New York for that interview, letting nothing get in the way.
  • Tell your story before someone else does. When days begin to pass before you have your say, everyone else tells your story for you. During The Today Show interview, Deen said she is sad people she’s never heard of are saying she’s a terrible person. Indeed. Don’t let strangers tell your story.
  • Use your media friends. There is a reason you have powerful and influential friends in the media. You’re human. You will screw up. When you do, let your media friends interview you. They may not go easy on you, but they’ll be kinder than someone who doesn’t have a 24-year relationship with you. If you don’t yet have friends in the media, make that one of your top priorities. It takes years to build relationships. Start now with the hopes you’ll never need them for something like this, and you can instead enjoy a “fun” relationship like Deen had with The Today Show before now.
  • Have a plan. Most of us would never think about what happens when a former employee sues us, but it’s critical to be ready for any kind of reputation-damaging crisis. Sit with your senior leadership team or a group of advisors and outline every situation you can think that would cause a crisis. These include things out of your control such as fires or natural disasters, as well as the leader having an affair or making racial remarks. Make sure as your business changes, your crisis plan reflects those changes, and addresses what could happen because of them. For most of us, having a crisis plan is like having insurance – we’ll never need it. But it’s better to have that insurance in place, than to be caught without a plan.

Keep an Issue from Becoming a Crisis

In the communications world, there are issues and there are crises. An issue is something you bring forward, admit to, and apologize for before anyone discovers it on their own.

Coming forward the second she was deposed would have been an issue. She would have been in control of the story.

An issue becomes a crisis when someone else finds out and tells the story for you. It’s when you lose donors (Susan G. Komen), scholarships (Penn State), championships (Lance Armstrong), and sponsorships (Paula Deen and Tiger Woods).

It’s not easy. In fact, it’s one of the hardest decisions you’d have to make. But wouldn’t you rather tell your story than have someone else do it for you?

A heavily modified version of this first appeared in my weekly AllBusiness Experts column.

P.S. Join DJ Waldow on July 25 at 11 a.m. CT for the Rebel’s Guide to Email Marketing. Register – for free – here!

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, a Chicago-based integrated marketing communications firm. She is the lead blogger here at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. She is the co-author of Marketing in the Round and co-host of Inside PR. Her second book, Spin Sucks, is available now.

81 comments
sebuffie
sebuffie

Thank you for such a comprehensive article! I'm currently a PR student and in class we have been examining cases like the ones you mentioned. With so many prior examples of poorly handled situations, it amazes me that it continues to happen time and time again. I'm questioning if people like Paula Deen, Tiger Woods, and Rob Ford (I saw that he was mentioned below - what a hot mess) are getting bad advice or simply aren't listening to good advice. It seems fairly simple. When you do something wrong, apologize. And as you said, don't add disclaimers or throw blame while you are doing it. People will respect and forgive you more readily if you take responsibility and ownership of your mistakes. A perfect example of this is the Maple Leaf Foods listeriosis crisis of 2008. The company responded quickly, sincerely apologized, and took action to make it right.

Although it's unfortunate to watch people mishandle their PR situations, it certainly provides great learning for the rest of us.

dbvickery
dbvickery

My favorite "theme" in this post was "Tell your story before someone else does." - along with time is of the essence because in a lot of cases "first one in...wins".

It should have been a multi-channel, planned, proactive approach to seizing her brand reputation again. No defense - just start with the simple apology as the first building block to recovery.

John_Trader1
John_Trader1

It should be worth noting that just a short year and a half ago, Deen was in hot water with the controversy surrounding her Novo Nordisk diabetes debacle. Remember that? IMHO, this was the beginning of the end for her, and the "racist" incident was simply throwing gas on an already burning fire.

Your advice on how Deen should have handled this mess is accurate, but it should have started a long time before all of this hit the fan, when she blatantly took advantage of her medical condition and leveraged it for her own benefit instead of for her fans and community. I was stunned that apparently, no lesson was learned and sustained from that controversy and she found herself in almost the same situation with the racist comments.


Rodriguez247
Rodriguez247

As I was reading this article, I realized that our now infamous mayor, Rob Ford, could have used someone like you in his corner. He did everything wrong, and is still sitting in the Mayor's chair. Although in the case of Paula Deen, my only advice for anyone that might ever be in her shoes... Don't be racist, period.

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

What these people need to remember is the volume of websites and blogs and social media sharers that need content every day. And nothing beats a national PR disaster to create a giant content vortex or more like a black hole where anyone who creates content or swims in the circles around the person or Brand all having an opinion and all sharing online.

The real reason besides saving your livelihood or brand is so much content can be generated it will drown you out online in Google Search forever. 

http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2010/08/rick-santorum-google-problem-dan-savage

I imagine that for the next 3 years anyone who Googles Paula Dean will see results about this.

Is there an example of someone creating a YouTube Video hoping to escape an interview that actually worked vs making things worse? I heard Ryan Holiday is her adviser?

Latest blog post: The Three Things, Edition 38

kvjincpr
kvjincpr

Gini...once again great article. Now we need to get people to listen and it will be better.


boslfp
boslfp

Good post on crisis comms!  I totally agree Deen made a huge mistake delaying getting control of the story herself.  However, as commenters like ClayMorgan noted, this likely will not make it any easier for her to recover, given the unforgivable taint of racism.  I just read that Michael Richards still has not performed live since his racist rant during a stand-up routine that happened nine years ago.  Deen has a lot of reputation work to do now that she's working on controlling the messaging during this crisis.

ClayMorgan
ClayMorgan

I'm sorry. It seems that there is a belief that you say that, genuinely, and all should be forgiven. But we all know that's not the case, is it?

There are certain "sins" that the American public doesn't forgive anymore. Racism is one. Anything harm to children. Animals sometimes. A few others.

Forty years ago, an affair or homosexual activity ended careers, but not any longer, it just slows them down some. Will racism or some of the other taboos eventually reach that point?

I think Paula Deen will recover, but not to the level where she was.

Latest blog post: Livefyre Conversation

susancellura
susancellura

I don't know what to say, to be honest. Outside of the post, which is about handling crisis communications, and is spot on, I don't know where I land on the subject of Paula.

AzHip
AzHip

Let's get back to the posting.  It is a great reminder on how to handle an issue before it becomes a crisis.  Thank you Gini.

NancyMyrland
NancyMyrland

Good post and discussion, Gini and friends. I had this discussion with the person in charge of Social Media at a major consumer products company a few days ago, suggesting they needed to take every possible scenario that could go wrong with their people, products and processes, and determine how they would handle mishaps. She was a bit surprised as planning at this depth had not been done. It also hasn't been done at most brands around the world, so we will see these situation happen forever. 

This is also a good lesson is building social capital before crises hit. Those who loved Paula Deen REALLY loved Paula Deen. With this group, her damage has been less because of her previous persona, her ability to connect with people and how they felt about her. Many are still disgusted and outraged, but not to the extent they would be had she not previously been so lovable and accessible to them. She connected with people. She reached out to them via many channels, both traditional and digital, thus building social capital with them. This, blended with the appropriate response(s) Gini outlines, could have minimized the damage even more. People are more forgiving when they like you, and even more willing to forgive when they REALLY like you. She has, thus far, wasted her social capital by not connecting the dots. 

I think she can still come back, but she's has a lot of work to do. She needs to admit wrong-doing, point out what was ugly about her that she doesn't like at all, talk about why it's wrong  and who she hurt, then apologize to them, then show her remorse by her acts + everything that @GiniDietrich said, of course. 

rdopping
rdopping

If you're going to throw stones you better be ready for the backlash. Part of the problem is certain generations underestimate the power of media these days.

Where there's smoke there's fire. If she dropped the N-bomb publicly it may be an indication of how she normally felt about certain people. No one is a saint but if you're lacking intelligence enough to say something racist publicly and not expect fallout then you deserve what you get.

biggreenpen
biggreenpen

(cont.) D) I think what niggles at me is that I don't believe (and obvi I don't have any special insight into her either) that there wouldn't have been such a tearful, remorseful apology on her part if all that was at stake was making sure that the people who felt wronged knew she was TRULY, SINCERELY was sorry about the choices she had made. It was more about everything she was losing. And E) I just don't buy the line of thought of "well she can't help it, it's when she was raised." I just. don't. buy. that. one. iota. I grew up in the same South. Although I grew up here 18 years after her and had the blessing of being on a military base in Puerto Rico as an elementary school kid (i.e., more diversity, less prejudice), I was raised by people who grew up in that same South. Sadly, I still see little quiet echoes of it here every single day, in 2013. But I digress (and apologize for a soap box moment). A little more about my thoughts on this here: http://biggreenpen.com/2013/06/23/apply-another-coat-or-raze-the-building/

biggreenpen
biggreenpen

I wish I had more time to chat about this here in the comments but here goes a slighly condensed version (work beckons.....). A) Absolutely from a crisis communications standpoint, she defaulted to letting others tell the story and that was her undoing (for now). B) I am pretty sure all of us shudder to think of that offhand comment we made in 8th grade (or last week) that was a poor choice and we wouldn't want heralded all over the media, but I do feel she has to answer to a higher set of standards being that she has cultivated (and profited greatly from) a particular image. C) The complaint and her deposition are widely available publicly -- I know that reading both of them gave me a MUCH broader understanding of the issue, and a much better grasp of the context, which (IMO) went way beyond the use of one racial epithet (to be continued).....

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@ClayMorgan There is a bigger issue about this that really bothers me and it has nothing to do with PR and marketing. It has everything to do with the numerous songs I heard this past weekend in the car with my 15-year-old nephew where the artists use the N word over and over again. Talk about a hypocritical country.

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

@AzHip this happens in all our lives. I bought stock in Paula Deen because I believed in her. Now I am feeling broken and hollow and deceived. All I know is @bobledrew better not let me down too. Rumors are swirling that he hosts grasshopper fights in his basement...PETA is investigating.

Latest blog post: The Three Things, Edition 38

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@NancyMyrland Your first paragraph is what makes me nuts about most organizations. In this case, they knew this had to come out. Even if you think it's behind lock and key, this stuff ALWAYS gets leaked. Why they weren't prepared is beyond me.

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

@NancyMyrland  You make some good points Nancy. But best case study is Martha Stewart who I think never really recovered. I feel it is much easier for a Brand to recover than a ersonality who is the brand.

Maybe @ginidietrich can go way back...back back back to old town Chicago and cover what Oprah did back in the crazy days of being hounded and married to Stedman. She survived and propsered.

Latest blog post: The Three Things, Edition 38

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@rdopping I think it's indicative of a much larger problem. After reading the lawsuit and her deposition, I am disgusted by her brother. I mean, he's a real pig. But I have a family member who was brought up in the same part of the country during the same time as Deen and I'm always shocked at the things he says. Even though things have progressed, he speaks the way he always has. We chastise him about it, but he doesn't change. It's a bigger issue than some nice lady who likes butter saying the N word.

RobBiesenbach
RobBiesenbach

@biggreenpen Yes, this! She was born in 1947. So she grew up at the dawn of the Civil Rights movement, was 17 when the Civil Rights Act was passed, 21 when Martin Luther King was assassinated. It's not like she's 90 or something. You couldn't grow up when and where she did and not be aware of what was going on and understand what was right and wrong -- or, at least, what was considered wrong by much of polite society.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@biggreenpen This is completely straying from a PR and marketing comment, but here's the lens I view this from:

A) I'm building an organization I believe strongly will succeed and leave behind a legacy for generations to come. Should I be held to a higher standard for something I said or did when I was 27? Because that was the year I did some really stupid things and it sucks to think I could eventually reach a level of success that requires me to defend anything I did then.

B) It scares the poop out of me that a former employee can come back three years later and sue us for something we did (or didn't do) many, many years ago as we were going through growing pains.

C) If someone contacts an attorney about one of my employees, you'd better believe I'm not going to sweep it under the rug.

From a communications perspective, it seems like she thought she was above the law or thought it would never amount to what it has. It's sad, but organizations HAVE to plan for this kind of stuff.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@KateFinley In this particular instance, I think she probably has a great team on her side. I do think she was physically unable to make the initial interview (which, in my opinion, is what killed her). I get that, but sometimes you have to put on your big girl pants and do something you don't think you can do. 

boslfp
boslfp

@ginidietrich @boslfp Seven years, actually.  Sorry.  Incident happened in 2006 and the article I read said he hasn't performed live since.  But earlier in the same piece it said that for nine years no one knew what Kramer did for a living on Seinfeld.  Guess the nine stuck in my head.

SEOcopy
SEOcopy

I hear you sister @ginidietrich...not in defense of this country (lol) but the great fall is part of all societies. Some may call it a flaw in human nature, but it's up to us how we react. Great piece signora with wise words!

NancyMyrland
NancyMyrland

@ginidietrich @Howie Goldfarb I know. They just don't think it will ever reach their beloved brand or person. People live in a dream world when things are good, and don't plan for the worst because it hasn't been a part of their world. There is also a heavy dose of ignorance in this case. With the mindset that existed must come a lot of denial of many issues, including that you could be singled out for your horrid, or radical, or inappropriate thoughts or gestures. With power often comes an attitude of safety, where many think they are above the law, the norm, or there will always be people who will take care of them. 

Karen_C_Wilson
Karen_C_Wilson

@RobBiesenbach @biggreenpen That's a great post, Paula. I was sitting here head-nodding all the way through your comments here and the post you linked to. My father grew up in that same south, too. He was also born in 1947. He admits to being racist as a young man and going along with those attitudes, which he learned from his parents and community. The difference is that he grew up, changed his attitudes and even made the effort to make amends for his attitudes toward at least one classmate from when desegregation happened. Then he raised his children to treat everyone as equals, while teaching us how wrong his past attitudes were - he was always honest about it. I have so much respect for that. AND, my grandparents made big changes to their own racist attitudes. If they could do it, then so could Paula Deen. She chose not to. 

We'll see this situation happen again 10, 20, 30, 40 years from now when someone else gets caught making homosexual slurs. People haven't learned. Ultimately, I agree - her apology is probably more "I'm sorry I got caught and it's ruined my working life" than "I'm sorry for having these hateful attitudes".

biggreenpen
biggreenpen

@ginidietrich @biggreenpen Absolutely, the planning for scenarios that you really don't think will happen (and hope won't) is key. And your points are well, well taken.  

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Gini Dietrich of Spin Sucks offers great crisis management tips in her article “Paula Deen: A Lesson in Crisis Communications“. [...]

  2. [...] Paula Deen: A Lesson in Crisis Communications: I can always count on Gini Dietrich to provide the best and most useful perspective on any PR crisis and her post on Paula Deen’s situation does not disappoint. My favorite tip from this post is “tell your story before someone else does.” SO smart. [...]

  3. […] Paula Deen — for her clumsy video apologies, Today Show no-show, and overall lack of self-awareness in the wake of criticism about her racist comments from years ago. I mean, even if you have fantasized about having black servers at a wedding to give it that classic Southern ambiance, don’t answer “Yes, of course” in a deposition when asked if you have ever used the N-word.  […]

  4. […] PR teams do in the event of a crisis? Paula Deen took to YouTube with a heartfelt apology after accusations of racism, should Beiber issue a similar apology? Who knows. Judging by his recent antics I have a feeling […]