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June 27, 2013

Paula Deen's Biggest Mistake - Going it Alone

Paula DeenPaula Deen - Food Network's celebrity chef - known more for her over-use of butter and quirky personality than being serious - has wedged herself into a tight corner. During a deposition in a discrimination court case in which she's being accused of creating a hostile work environment, she admitted to using the "N-word" many years ago.

The firestorm was immediate and devastating to Deen and her cooking empire. So far, Food Network, WalMart, Target, Novo Nordisk, Home Depot and Smithfield Foods have all dumped her.

As a professional communicator, I watched the trainwreck with fascination and couldn't look away.

No one needed to tell me, because I could see the writing on the wall. Paula Deen tried to manage this crisis all by herself. At least at first. First and foremost, she needed counseling on how to handle her court deposition. The casual and folksy way she answered the deposition questions was my first indication that she needs serious sensitivity training. Her actual vocabulary is extremely limited, as is evident in the video. This is why the PR Gods invented talking points. Not everyone instinctively knows the right words to express their  intentions.

I have a few questions:

  1. Why was Paula Deen allowed to wander into this situation with no professional counsel?
  2. Why didn't Food Network have a diversity consultant working with Paula to improve her vocabulary on this issue?
  3. Why didn't Paula have a crisis communications plan in place?
Paula Deen had a multi-million dollar empire of cooking shows, book sales, celebrity endorsements and restaurants under her domain. Someone should have been responsible for reining in her public comments and teaching her how to communicate to a larger, more sophisticated audience. And at the very least, they could have made her look less pink on camera. It's unfathomable how, as a businesswoman, she could overlook having a crisis plan in place. Some strategic counsel could have saved her a world of hurt in the public square.

So many other celebrities have come back from this type of humiliation, that I have no doubt that she will be forgiven eventually. She has finally hired a D.C. crisis firm, and I hope they will be able to guide her out of this mess and re-establish her former star power. If not, the always helpful Reverend Jesse Jackson has offered to help her put together an apology tour.

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