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!

Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder, CEO, and author of Spin Sucks, host of the Spin Sucks podcast, and author of Spin Sucks (the book). She is the creator of the PESO Model and has crafted a certification for it in partnership with Syracuse University. She has run and grown an agency for the past 15 years. She is co-author of Marketing in the Round, co-host of Inside PR, and co-host of The Agency Leadership podcast.

View all posts by Gini Dietrich