I must admit, I love a good train wreck. It must be my first responder background. Watching a crisis evolve-virtually or literally-gets me cranked up. Watching the Paula Deen PR train wreck has been equally sad and fascinating.
For those who have been living under a rock, or on vacation like me, let me give ya the abbreviated background. Paula and her business partners are being sued for discriminatory business practices (sexual and racial) by an ex-employee. Paula gave her deposition in mid-May. Early last week the National Enquirer released information and quotes from the deposition where Paula admitted to having used the “N-word” in various contexts. The media immediately pounced on the story, repeating the inflammatory sections of the testimony. A brief synopsis can be found here; http://www.foodnetworkgossip.com/2013/06/the-paula-deen-racism-scandal-timeline.html#.UcjsJ8u9KSMf (my apologies for no hyperlink. Making this work on an IPad is a challenge for this old guy)
Shortly thereafter mainstream and social media sharks smelled blood in the water and moved in for the kill. Sides were taken, and many of those supporting Paula posted comments that appeared to be racial, further undermining any credibility she had left. But wait, it gets worse, much worse. She then issues three separate apology videos via YouTube. The first one was an amateurish attempt at an apology that only served to make folks further question her character, along with the business acumen of her advisors. This video was removed and replaced with another slightly more polished video apology, followed up with another apology to Matt Lauer from the Today Show, who she stood up earlier that morning. Holy crap! This isn’t a train wreck, it’s nuclear Armageddon.
This story will play out for a while as her various sponsors dump her like old grease down a drain. I’ll reserve judgement on the discrimination claims related to the lawsuit. The court will ultimately decide (unless Paula wises up and quickly settles out of court). But, I have to wonder what the hell her management team was thinking. I mean, come on people! They are being sued for racial and sexual harassment, and were deposed a month ago.
Paula and her team had a month to develop a proactive strategy and response to potential allegations and negative PR. But, they were obviously caught flat footed, not realizing the speed of light tsunami of social media reaction on both sides of the issue. Perhaps the lawyers were driving the boat, fearful of any statements injurious to their case. If so, I’m afraid all they did was throw her into the deep fat fryer of public opinion. Apologizing via YouTube, even three times, comes across as insincere, disingenuous and pathetic. Hey Paula Deen advisors, WAKE UP! It’s about conversation and engagement, especially when a corporate reputation is on the line. Unfortunately, in this case I think it’s too late. Maybe Paula’s hard lessons will help someone else in the future.