Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda: Thoughts on the Paula Deen Controversy

Posted on: July 11th, 2013 by Wendy Alpine

PR Pro Wendy Alpine of Alpine Communications ( reflects on the controversy and PR nightmare surrounding Paula Dean's recent inappropriate statements.In this day and age of 24/7 social media, no one is immune from being called out on stupid comments, especially celebrities.

The recent controversy surrounding Paula Deen and how she handled herself has sparked discussion on crisis management and how a PR professional might have handled the situation.

Most of what I’ve read and heard from crisis management professionals is that she blundered and dug herself a deeper hole than she needed to. In essence, she violated all the crisis management rules, but what happened can serve as a teaching example for all of us and our clients.

Here is what she could have done:

1.    Own up to the mistake.

If you make a mistake, be upfront and honest about it. Everyone makes mistakes. Don’t compound it by becoming defensive and making excuses for what you said or did. Don’t blame it on your parents, where you live or your upbringing.

If you have offended someone, simply apologize and leave it at that. People respect honesty and sincerity, and will be more likely to forgive questionable comments or behavior if you “own up” to it.

2.    Contact your PR person right away.

Before you do anything that might backfire on you, call your PR team right away to enlist their help. They probably have had experience with this kind of thing and will be able to talk it out with you and come up with various approaches to mitigate the damage.

Once Deen hired a crisis firm, it was reported that she rallied those companies that are sticking with her. They are writing letters of support, which is the first positive thing that has come out of this situation.

( From August 2012: Crisis Communications: What Do You Do When Something Goes Awry?)

3.    Don’t hide from the media.

Paula Deen decided to take control of the situation by doing her own YouTube video. That, in itself, might have been helpful, but she did three of them. Many crisis professionals feel that one would have sufficed if she had apologized more sincerely.

Also, she said she would go on the Today Show, then she canceled, giving the Today Show fodder to make yet another negative story about her. Big Mistake. It compounded the mounting bad press that she received.

Before you decide to engage the media, make sure you have discussed your messages with your crisis team. This should include not only your PR team, but key customers, sponsors and special interest groups. A well thought-out message will help get the media on your side and put you in a more positive light.

4.    Be mindful of what you say.

Deen’s comments were made in a deposition, which she probably thought was private, but which became public.

We live in a social media world. Everyone has a cell phone with a camera and video, so what you say may be recorded even when you think you’re speaking in private. Realize that your photo can be snapped and posted onto Facebook, Twitter or Instagram in a New York minute.

5.    Use the mistake as a catalyst for positive change.

Crises management professionals have suggested that Deen could use her misstep to put a spotlight on the continuing issue of racial discrimination in our country.

People, especially celebrities, need to be aware how their behavior and comments affect their brand and how they are perceived by the public. In this age of instant media, the old adage “think before you speak” is even more relevant today.

Wendy Alpine of
Wendy Alpine
Phone: 404-641-6170
Fax: 404-806-5316

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