In the annals of PR freefall, celebrity chef Paula Deen is now a case study. Last week, the queen of Southern cuisine faced a deposition by a former employee who charged that Deen used racial slurs in the workplace. Problematic, to be sure – yet that was only the beginning.
During the deposition, Deen was asked if she had ever used the “n” word. Her answer? “Of course” – one can only imagine a member of her PR team having heart palpitations – “probably when a black man burst into the bank I was working at and put a gun to my head.” This came across rather like justification. The deposition stated that Deen used the slur more recently, in reference to servers for a Deen-planned wedding reception with a Plantation theme.
But wait, it gets better, or rather, worse. Deen scheduled a damage control appearance on the Today Show, but come Friday morning, she was a no-show. An irked Matt Lauer reported, “Her publicist says she’s exhausted.” Probably from the news that the Food Network, on which Deen has several shows, was not renewing her contract.
Then came the apology videos. The first, slickly produced by Deen’s team, lasted a single derided hour before being replaced by an unedited video that came across the same as the first: Deen was sorry – mostly, it seemed, because she got caught.
THE PR VERDICT: “F” (Full Fiasco) for Paula Deen and her PR team.
THE PR TAKEAWAY: Damage control shouldn’t cause more damage. Only last year, Deen’s credibility took a hit when she revealed her previously hidden diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes, often caused by the kind of cooking Deen’s multi-million dollar empire is built on. With her credibility already stretched, this was the time to let cooler heads prevail. How about proper coaching prior to the deposition that would have stressed bewilderment about why this issue has surfaced? While in legal matters, the truth must be told, in this case it might have sweetened with contrition, best served simply and without qualification.