The Sudden Fall of Paula Deen and What We Can Learn From It

Written by: Ellen Burke

Unless you’ve not turned on a television or listened to the radio or surfed the web the last few days, you already know about what Paula Deen did. I’m not going to go into the specifics of what happened but what has happened to Paula Deen, her rise and spectacular fall in what seemed to be just a few hours, is an example of how social media controls and drives the dialogue these days and what kind of financial impact it can and does have on all of us.

This is not the first time that Paula Deen has been in trouble, not for things she said but for things she didn’t. In January 2012, Deen announced that she had been diagnosed in 2009 with Type 2 Diabetes. (Type 2 Diabetes is the most common form of diabetes and it’s when the body doesn’t produce enough insulin. It typically is treated with diet and medication.)

The trouble for Paula Deen was not that she had diabetes but that she had waited 3 years to announce it, telling viewers on the Today show (where she was a regular guest) by simultaneously announcing that she had an endorsement deal with a pharmaceutical company to promote their non-insulin diabetes medication.

The backlash was immediate and widespread, with many accusing her of concealing her illness for so long and only announcing it when it would benefit her financially. Others attacked her on Twitter and Facebook for continuing to promote what they labeled her unhealthy cooking and food choices (many of which relied upon massive doses of butter). In particular, the American Diabetes Association singled out that most of what Deen cooked had what they called “the deadly triangle: fat, sugar and salt”.

You would have thought that Paula Deen and her team of media advisors and public relations personnel would have learned a lesson from her 2012 diabetes fiasco. Apparently not so much. Because when this incident about her use of a racial slur came out this week, she and her team basically established the playbook for how not to handle a social media and PR crisis.

According to an interview that aired on the Today show on June 22, the day after The Food Network announced it was not renewing Paula Deen’s contract with the network (which was due to expire at the end of June), Steve Adubato, a well-known media and communications analyst said that the advice Deen has been getting from her handlers has been wrong from the beginning, starting with her testimony at the deposition for a lawsuit regarding discrimination that she was involved in.

He suggests that a good PR team would have told Paula Deen to have been contrite and apologetic in the deposition, instead of appearing to make excuses as to why she used a racial slur in the past. And, on June 21, after committing the previous evening to appear on the Today show to discuss the situation with Matt Lauer in what was to be a “no question off the table” interview, her team cancelled her appearance moments before Today went on the air.

Instead, her crack advisors allowed her to make not one but two videos apologizing for her actions. The first, which had clearly been edited, asked for forgiveness. It was posted and taken down very quickly and replaced with a much longer, unedited video again showing her apologizing and saying she is not the kind of person that the press is saying she is.

That video too appeared to backfire for what seems to be 2 reasons. The first is the age-old question: is she sorry for what she did, or is she sorry that she got caught? Social media is never kind in these situations and the second opinion seemed to be the one that spread far more quickly. The second reason the video seemed to fail at managing this was that it seemed to try and redirect part of the blame back to the media – I’m not bad but the media says I am.

But the fact remains that we live in a digital world now where nothing we say and nothing we do goes unnoticed and, when you do something wrong, your brand name (whether it’s the Paula Deen empire or the Susan G. Komen Foundation or Charlie Sheen drinking tiger blood or any other well-known person or entity) takes a hit, sometimes a big hit. And that translates into money being lost because people vote how they feel with their pocketbooks.

Paula Deen has already lost her most visible platform, her cooking shows on The Food Network. Whether the other parts of her empire – her cookware, her books, her food products – will be able to survive is up for debate. America tends to be a forgiving country when they believe a person has changed their ways and spent a sufficient amount of time learning from – and changing for the better because of – their mistakes. Whether that will happen with Paula Deen remains to be seen.


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