Paula Deen: Too Late to Recover from PR Missteps?


After working in PR for a long time, I’m used to communications professionals coming forward after any scandal saying confidently, “Here’s what he/she could do to survive and get past this crisis.” It’s the PR equivalent of an ambulance-chasing lawyer — so-called “crisis experts” come forward to suggest that if only Paula or whoever would hire them, all their problems would (eventually) go away.

So I find it fascinating that so many of these commentators are saying Paula Deen is cooked (sorry), as suggested in this article from USA Today, “Paula Deen is Done, Experts Say.” Howard Bragman, vice chairman of, says, “Paula Deen will survive but she will never be whole again. She will never make as much money, she will never have the respect that she once had, there are people that will never be in business with her again.” And Mark Pasetsky, CEO of public relations and marketing content firm Mark Allen & Co., says, “Her brand is now tainted beyond recourse….She will have a viable business, she will have a lot of fans and make a lot of money, but it’s never going to be the same.”

In many crisis situations, advisers often suggest that the charges seem worse than they are because of poor communications and PR missteps. But Pasetsky goes on to say the crisis was caused because “someone…so famous…cannot tell the difference between right and wrong.” In another article, I think Jonathan L. Bernstein, president of Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc., hit the nail on the head when he commented, “She clearly didn’t understand that 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.”

I’ve had some interesting conversations with family and friends over this topic, and for me I think Deen has been unconvincing because she can’t seem to decide if a) she did nothing wrong and is being unfairly victimized or b) she made a mistake (or mistakes) that she now regrets, and she’s remorseful. By trying to say both, neither position is credible. In the deposition, she recalls using the N-word in describing the person involved in a bank robbery, and when asked “Have you used the word since?” she says, “I’m sure I have, but it’s been a very long time.”

Fast forward to Deen’s “Today Show” interview with Matt Lauer, when he asks if she has ever used the word any time other than the bank robbery event:
DEEN: I have never. I never. They asked me in all of my 66 years on earth, had I ever used it.
LAUER: So, reports that you were asked in that deposition whether you had used the n-word on other occasions and said, “Probably,” or, “Of course” are inaccurate?
DEEN: No.  I answered the question truthfully.
LAUER: So, you have never used the n-word, other than that one occasion.
DEEN: No.  It’s just not…it’s just not a part of who we are.

This whole story is fascinating and sad from both a legal and communications perspective. After she received coaching from her lawyers and advisers, her story changed. Was she wrong in her deposition, or in her interview and other statements? Is she being advised to take a legal fall (by contradicting her sworn testimony) to try to repair her public reputation? Now Paula has fired her longtime agent and has hired the crisis expert who inspired the TV show “Scandal.” Sadly for Paula, I think it’s too little, too late. What do you think?

If you’re interested in this story and haven’t already, read the “Today Show” transcript and the deposition.

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