Tweaking Paula Deen's Damage Control Recipe

Six lessons from the Deen publicity disaster

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You don't have to love deep fried chicken and corn bread to be fascinated by the Paula Deen public relations maelstrom, but it helps. The kerfuffle received a new shot of media adrenaline Wednesday morning when Deen had a high-stakes interview with "Today Show" host Matt Lauer. And while there are many more significant issues for the nation than whether a South Georgia grandmother secretly harbors racist tendencies, there is a great deal that every business leader or politician can learn from this. Here are six lessons:

1. Don't wing it. Just as the Supreme Court issued its ruling on the Voting Rights Act, our national difficulty in discussing matters of race is still apparent. Sensitive issues like alleged racism are complex and can quickly become super-heated. They must be handled with great sensitivity and care. You can have the purest heart and best intentions in the world, but if you say something awkward, it can be misinterpreted or used as a lens through which all of your motivations are interpreted.

Deen has a tendency to go off script and when she does, she uncorks memorable language that doesn't always work to her advantage. I'm guessing that Deen is very difficult to coach, insisting that her originality and "sassiness" is part of her brand. But when you run a business that provides the livelihoods for hundreds of people, you have a responsibility to more than your own ego. You owe your employees, your investors and your business partners your discipline: You need to think carefully about what is going to come out of your mouth.

[Check out our gallery of political cartoons.]

2.Don't miss the chance to tell your story in a credible forum. Deen bailed out of an initial interview opportunity on the "Today Show" last Friday, opting instead to release a series of apology videos on her YouTube channel. Five days later, she sat down with Lauer but that was five days too late. In a crisis, you must tell your side of the story honestly and quickly. But telling only what you want to tell in controlled videos of your own making doesn't do the trick. It lacks the credibility of an objective third party who will make you answer the tough question.     

3.You are the brand. People who are in a business in which they personally are closely linked to their company have often used their own likability to increase the value of the company's brand. For some people, this kind of celebrity can be addictive. This was once mostly the province of movie stars, athletes and politicians.  Now you see it from real estate agents to restaurateurs. And social media creates more opportunities for people to experience their Warholean 15-minutes of fame at levels far below Deen's. But this also creates risk for the company. If the boss gets into a car after one too many drinks, tells an off color joke in front of the wrong person or has a family crisis, this is suddenly an issue that could damage the company.

4.No matter how nice you think you are, some people hate you. One of the striking aspects of this controversy is how quickly it moved from a lawsuit filed by a single former employee over alleged working conditions to a veritable siege across multiple fronts:

  • Other celebrity chefs and foodies have been deriding her recipes.
  • Southern partisans have been complaining that she reinforces a negative stereotype of the South that is inaccurate.
  • And social critics have ripped into her paid endorsement of a diabetes medicine.
  • [Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

    My point isn't to debate the validity of any of these criticisms, but to note that these critics didn't arise from the ether. They could have been anticipated. If you have a high profile, you should take a few moments to consider who the critics are who might pile on if you ever stumble.

    5.Your business partners are not your friends. Deen has lost several important business relationships in the last few days, and there may be more to come. Some people are calling it corporate cowardice, but this is part of the price you pay for controversy. Your business partners might like you, but that's not the reason they are your partners. They are your partners because you make them money. If you stop making them money or, worse, pose a risk to their money, they will stop being your partners very quickly.

    6. Be reflective. Think about the past, your past behavior and mistakes you might have made. Make sure that you have policies and procedures in place now that demonstrate your values and that will keep those mistakes from happening again.  And then if your past behavior ever becomes an issue, don't be shy about showing how you already took actions to atone for and prevent it from happening again.

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