More Butter – Rehabilitating the Paula Deen Brand

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When reading the story of Paula Deen’s recent public comments and legal woes, instead substitute the name of your company CEO or a high profile employee. Ms. Deen is indeed the CEO of her brand and as a former host on The Food Channel, a representative of their brand as well.

The original issue came to light when a partial transcript of Ms. Deen’s testimony regarding a lawsuit filed by a former employee was shared and reshared via social and traditional media. The National Enquirer claims to have acquired a video of a deposition in which Deen admits to using the N-word and making racist and anti-semitic jokes. She also allegedly describes her interest in hiring black waiters dressed to look like “slaves” at a wedding.

The deposition, which was reportedly held on May 17, took place as part of a court case brought forth by former Paula Deen Enterprises employee Lisa Jackson against Deen and her brother, Earl “Bubba” Hiers. Jackson alleges several instances of sexual and racial workplace discrimination.

It is interesting that this portion of the deposition is not mentioned:

The use of the N-word by Deen is glaringly absent from Jackson’s sworn testimony, but it remains in her Second Amended Complaint. The complaints and other filings by Jackson in this case have all been calculated to create a tabloid-type hysteria. Allegations such as those recited above have nothing to do with federal employment law or gender discrimination and do not move the needle in Jackson’s favor for the theories of recovery she asserts. The Court must look no further than Billips’ communications with the National Enquirer regarding the release by a court reporting firm of the videotape of Paula Deen’s deposition to see the effects of Jackson’s efforts.”

You may view the entire deposition documents here.

Deen2There are many challenging pieces to this incident, starting with the original lawsuit filed by the former employee. From a Crisis Management point-of-view, one has to wonder what preparation work was done at that time or before? Many employers must respond to former employee allegations at some point; given the high profile of this particular employer, and the allegations of impropriety, harassment and discrimination, message maps and planning in order to control the information were critical.

Moreover, Ms. Deen then made a rushed, apologetic video in response to the rumored-to-exist National Enquirer video’s contents. Rather than rush to extinguish a small flame, Ms. Deen’s team tossed on gasoline. As Firestorm’s CEO Harry Rhulen says “If you’re explaining, you’re losing.”

Whether a public relations crisis is a business disruption or a business disaster is directly related to the degree of planning for such an occasion. Having an established crisis management plan empowers companies to make critical decisions and not create additional, unnecessary exposures for the Brand.

  • Do you have access to an experienced crisis coach?
  • What crises has your crisis manager handled? A crisis is not the time for on the job training.

Preparedness and resiliency are key brand attributes for every company. Crises come as surprises. The control of events and message are lost, impacts accelerate and public scrutiny intensifies.

    • In a crisis, identify what you know and not what you think.
    • Establish what your business is concerned about.
    • Create an actionable plan and clear messages, as well as monitor events and media.
    • Adjust your strategy and plan continuously based upon fact.
    • Pay attention to metrics

Crisis Communications/Crisis Public Relations

For each of your identified threats and vulnerabilities, best practices include developing the base messages (message mapping) for each stakeholder group before the crisis occurs. It is easier to edit these base messages than creating a new message from scratch at a time of great stress and confusion.

Successful crisis communications and crisis public relations turn on four things:

1) Message

Identify no more than three short key messages (message mapping) for each stakeholder group i.e. customers, employees, providers, regulators and investors. Knowing what to talk about and what not to talk about is critical. For example:

  • We will not be defined by this event.
  • We will invent the future.
  • We will embrace our employees, customers and communities.

2) Media

Company leadership must have media training, even if they have been in front of the camera hundreds or even thousands of times in the past. One of the most critical things a spokesperson needs to learn is that the time to give a statement or communication must be determined based on a strategy, not based on the fact that a reporter may be in your lobby, on the phone or outside your door, or that a “bombshell” is about to drop.  

3) Monitoring

Once a crisis occurs, your business is no longer in control of the message. Social, electronic, and print media need to be monitored. Information is being processed now by individuals from a variety of social media sources—cell phones, IPads and more. Content is on YouTube faster than any press release can be issued. If your company is not monitoring what is being said about your company “out there,” it will likely suffer reputational harm and brand damage very quickly.

Monitoring must be factored into your crisis management planning, and the necessary social media monitoring platform must be implemented or your business may never recover. 

4) Metrics

How does your organization know it is achieving the needed results? Establishing metrics to evaluate crisis management and communications effectiveness is a critical step. Metrics provide tangible measurements to track and evaluate impacts.

Social Media

Social media is a game changer. Social media risk is an identified vulnerability and needs to be included in every business impact analysis, business continuity plan, emergency response and crisis communications/management plan.

For the Deen empire, the impacts are still evolving; Home Depot and retailer Target have decided to end their deals with Deen while drug maker Novo Nordisk has suspended its relationship with her. Home shopping channel QVC said it has “decided to take a pause” from selling Deen’s products. The news comes just one day after Wal-Mart and Caesars Entertainment Corporation announced they would end their relationships with Deen amid the growing controversy.

Most businesses think they can survive a disruption or crisis, until one occurs. The time to test your crisis communications and crisis public relations is before something happens.

Could your business take this kind of hit? Talking about it now can only help your team prepare for anything. Use this blog post as a conversation-starter, and discuss how your company would respond if it were your CEO. Focus on your Three Key Messages first, and you’ll certainly be more prepared than you were, and better prepared than was the Deen team.


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