We've all seen this before: A celebrity with a wholesome, down-to-earth image gets caught, or admits to, doing something terribly wrong, and in the midst of a public outcry (and certainly after lost sponsors), the celebrity issues a public apology. We tell our clients that they really only get one chance at an apology.
That one chance is crucial to solidifying or destroying their reputation.
Which brings us to Paula Deen. Not too long ago she had another occasion to practice her apology skills after acting in a way that many found to be disingenuous. Remember her Diabetes Drama? At that time Deen’s corporate and personal reputation took a hit, but she essentially said she was sorry for misleading the public, and was able to keep her job and sponsors. The public accepted her apology, and her maternal image remained in good standing.
In her most recent controversy, while being deposed in a racial and sexual harassment case involving her brother's restaurant, Deen has admitted to using racial slurs. After the public outcry over Deen's admission, she then issued not one, but THREE, public apologies. The problem I saw with these apologies is that they were 1) a bit distracting to watch; 2) too much about what Deen did to herself; and 3) half-hearted and not believable.
Looking at this situation from the unique perspective of a crisis professional and a person of color, I asked myself if there is really anything that could have been done better or quicker to help Deen once her racial slurs became public. And I'm not sure there is. People often think that if you hire a crisis communications team, the problem will be solved and your reputation will be saved, and often it does work out that way – at least if you hire the professionals.
But I'm not sure anything can undo being marked a racist. A truly heartfelt apology may soften the blow, but at best that person’s image will still be viewed as that of a "contrite racist."
If I were working with Deen and trying to craft a strategy on avoiding further destruction of her personal reputation and business brand, I would offer these pieces of advice:
Stop Talking – I found it astounding that Deen kept speaking publicly about the matter, and yet only made her situation worse. There are times when we advise clients to proactively get their message "out there," but if your message isn’t working it’s time to rethink your strategy.
Hire Expert Help From the Start – It was clear that in the early stages of this crisis, Deen and her team made costly mistakes that ended up costing her job at Food Network, major sponsors and the trust of some her fans. It wasn't until things were really bad that she hired a seasoned crisis PR professional.
One of the most important keys to managing a crisis is having the right team in place from the beginning protecting you and your brand from suffering irreparable damage. Why did she wait until after her reputation had taken major hits to get expert help with her situation?
Can Deen's image survive another controversy? Will the public trust her again if it does?
I don't know. Sometimes all the expert help in the world and right words can’t save your reputation if you’ve destroyed it yourself.
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Harry-Jacques Pierre, former deputy press secretary for Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, is associate VP for Rasky Baerlein Strategic Communications, Boston.