Deen controversy offers lessons in crisis PR
The Paula Deen controversy is a study in crisis management public relations and communications. What are the lessons to be learned? Crisis management is complicated and typically a Monday-morning-quarterback’s sport. But here are a few rules that can shed some light.
Rule #1: Anticipate.
In Deen’s case the reality of the situation was that the smoke lead to fire. Given this, the first rule of crisis management to “be out in front of the situation” became all the more important.
According to pauladeen.com, Deen had retained the PR services of The Rose Group. Her team should have first anticipated better the nature of the deposition and the resulting firestorm. When you are being sued for $1.2MM by a former manager in your restaurant for racial and sexual harassment who worked for your brother you must know one thing: These questions were going to be asked. In reading the deposition, I got the sense that she was not prepared by counsel to limit her answers. She also seems to contradict herself by insisting that she doesn’t use that language or tell questionable jokes only to maintain later that “I can’t, myself, determine what offends another person.”
Rule #2: If it’s true, own it.
Deen’s team hired Washington, DC crisis firm Smith & Co. and one of their first moves was to postpone the Friday interview with Lauer. Far be it for me to question them but I think this was a poor move. She needed to keep her commitment for the Friday interview with Lauer. I suppose it bought them sometime over the weekend. But really, what was the difference? To the point, after all this time the Wednesday interview was nearly devoid of contrition or apology. Which is always the first good step to winning back the public graces.
Once on the Today Show, it’s clear to me that Deen was well-rehearsed and was able to keep focused on her message as opposed to the interviewers. She deftly side-stepped Lauer’s insistence on focusing on the “business-side of this” from the start.
Appearance wise Deen looked still a bit drawn and tired. She freely admitted that she was exhausted and had to miss the Friday planned interview. Which alludes to…
Rule #3: Meet the story where it needs you most.
Prior to the Today interview, Deen had posted multiple edit, er…edits of a statement on YouTube. In the videos she specifically apologized and I’m convinced she was sincere and contrite. And while social media is a critical part of any crisis management, the story was happening on television and particularly on NBC. Fatigue and appearance aside, Deen needed to keep her commitment to Lauer for multiple reasons. Canceling implies she’s hiding and only creates more speculation.