In court documents filed last week, celebrity chef Paula Deen admitted to having used racial slurs, stirring an immediate controversy.
Quickly realizing the need to salvage her image, Deen initially scheduled an interview on NBC’s The Today Show for Friday morning. However, the appearance was cancelled at the last minute, leaving the network in the lurch and getting the Paula Deen damage control efforts off to a shaky start.
The kitchen celebrity instead opted to post a personal apology video online, giving her complete control of the conversation. While the concept may have had solid crisis PR roots, the 45-second video contained very rough editing, which significantly cut the down the credibility of her brief statement.
The hastily posted video was quickly removed and replaced with a second, 2-minute clip of Deen speaking unedited. In the video, Deen insisted that she has no racial prejudices and thoroughly apologized for her past actions.
Merely an hour after Deen’s first apology video was posted online, the Food Network announced that it would not be renewing her contract for “Paula’s Home Cooking,” the show which kick started Deen’s rise to fame. In the latest development, Smithfield Foods also announced that it has dropped the Southern chef as its spokesperson.
While Paula Deen’s image was facing a rough road to recovery from moment of her confession, Deen’s shaky crisis management efforts have certainly not helped the situation. Agreeing to a top-tier media interview and backing out at the last minute was a major misstep, making Deen appear hesitant and scared, rather than prepared to face the truth and own up to her actions.
Posting an online apology can be a wise PR move in many cases, but the first video of Deen was not ready to publish. The poor video quality, and its retraction and replacement only created further distrust.
Paula Deen’s reputation management team clearly recognized one important part of crisis communication – moving quickly. However, they also moved recklessly without securing an overall plan and ensuring quality, which undermined their efforts. The key to successful crisis response is to move swiftly, but also strategically. Otherwise more harm than good can come of the damage control efforts.
Time will tell whether the rest of Paula Deen’s business empire of restaurants, cookbooks and kitchenware will be able to survive the scandal long-term. But with her cornerstone show and major endorsement deal already gone, it appears likely that Paula’s PR woes are just beginning.