A Case Study of Paula Deen’s Personal Reputation Crisis

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    No amount of crisis management will prevent the Food Network from giving Deen the boot for the personal reputation crisis she experienced.

    Paula Deen has enjoyed a long run as one of the most well-known celebrity chefs in the world, but a poorly-handled admission of racist views and actions has forced Food Network to drop her from its roster.

    One read through this quote, from a Fox News article describing her deposition for a pending lawsuit filed by an ex-employee, and you’ll know why:

    According to the reports, in the deposition, Deen replied “Yes, of course,” when asked if she used the N-word.

    Deen also reportedly admitted telling racist jokes, explaining: “It’s just what they are — they’re jokes…most jokes are about Jewish people, rednecks, black folks…I can’t determine what offends another person.”

    Jackson said also Deen wanted African-American employees to act like slaves for a big wedding she was planning. Deen explained she got the idea from a restaurant where “the whole entire waiter staff was middle-aged black men, and they had on beautiful white jackets with a black bow tie,” the National Enquirer reports. The magazine also quoted Deen as saying: “I mean, it was really impressive. That restaurant represented a certain era in America…after the Civil War, during the Civil War, before the Civil War…It was not only black men, it was black women…I would say they were slaves.”

    Jaw-dropping, to say the least. The deposition transcript is available all over the web, and in it, you can see Deen digging herself a deeper hole with every response. From defending her brother for showing porn to employees to repeated statements that dropping N-bombs all over the workplace is fine, as long as they’re used in a joke, Deen made sure there was no wiggle room when it came to explaining her views to the public, and her employers.

    The lesson here? Well, first off, if you still harbor racist or bigoted notions, you’d damn sure better keep them away from your professional life – while remembering that, these days, it’s pretty hard to keep even your private life private.

    Second, if you have done something in your past that you know is going to look bad, don’t try to defend it, and act apologetically if you must discuss the issue. Had Deen said in the deposition, “Yes, I did say those things, but I now realize they were inappropriate and hurtful,” she may still have a job.

    At this point, no amount of crisis management (and she’s sure trying, with a YouTube apology already out and a second try at making her Today show appearance scheduled) will disguise the fact that Deen was utterly unconcerned about the way her actions impacted her personal reputation crisis, the others and unashamed of the outrageously racist and inappropriate behavior that went on at her restaurants until it cost her a job. Deen still has legions of loyal fans who will spend on her various retail products, but she’ll have to leave the TV chef gig to her sons because no exec in their right mind is going to give her another show.

    For more resources, see the Free Management Library topic: Crisis Management

    [Jonathan Bernstein is president of Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc., an international crisis management consultancy, and author of Manager’s Guide to Crisis Management and Keeping the Wolves at Bay – Media Training. Erik Bernstein is Social Media Manager for the firm, and also the editor of its newsletter, Crisis Manager]