Paula Deen’s failed effort to repair her reputation continues to be of interest to news media and talking heads as well as everyday people who remain interested in her response and her responsibilities. Ms. Deen is experiencing an ongoing crisis in her effort to manage her reputation. Indeed, this is her personal problem, but it’s also damaging the future of her many businesses, which translates to her employees. Allegations and acknowledgements of wrong behavior have triggered a series of events that Ms. Deen and high-ranking members of her empire obviously did not foresee. That’s what happens in crises – everyone’s surprised and usually about something everyone already knew.
Paula Deen’s faith in celebrity and in Matt Lauer’s not asking her difficult questions failed her, too. Her weak tactics and waning credibility were diluted further by her acknowledgement that she doesn’t really know what words and behaviors are offensive. Growing up in the south is not a defense against racist behaviors, no matter how good a cook you are. The Civil Rights Movement is not ancient history.
Ms. Deen’s dilemma has prompted a national conversation about race, but from our vantage point here at World Headquarters, it has also proven the value of Crisis Management and Public Relations.
Successful reputation management isn’t about dodging reporters’ questions. It’s about assisting an organization or business weather through mistakes of a leader or an important member of the team. Scandals ripple beyond the individual in the spotlight. Employees and jobs are impacted. That is real.
As a crisis manager, I’m aware that people make genuine mistakes. And people make genuine recoveries too, especially when they accept their circumstances and listen to objective counsel. Even matters associated with racism –which are often the most painful and most delicate to address -- can be repaired through an authentic approach. A belief that your own celebrity is coated with enough butter that your bad behavior and its aftermath will slide off and melt away is just foolish. It’s also bad business.