If food and cookbook giant Paula Deen were a stock, she’d have plummeted from $18 a share to pennies in the last two weeks.
A few years back, two Washington-based juggernauts in labor and race relations accused a well-known national company I worked with of racism against workers in two of its plants. The allegations were untrue, but their impact was potentially devastating. I was part of a large team of company managers, lawyers and others working through a weekend to head off a Monday news conference by the two D.C. giants, who’d warned our client on Friday. They apparently expected the company to buckle under to their demands.
Because the labor group was so influential, we decided to ask the company’s other national union to vouch for the company’s policies and practices. And, we brought in a number of rank and file workers and managers from the plants in question. All spoke publicly at a Monday morning news conference at the company’s third plant about what a valued and fair company our family owned client was. The charges evaporated.
However, the heart in the throat feeling everyone got when the warning arrived will not be soon forgotten.
Back to Deen. NPR did a good piece over the weekend [and thanks to HealthNow New York’s government affairs guru Don Ingalls for passing it on] with crisis management experts discussing Deen’s options.
Companies are exiting their endorsement deals faster than Barry Bonds’ homers left AT&T Park. At least half a dozen major companies, including her publisher, quit Deen since the court documents alleging her racist slurs and jokes became public. They include Walmart, Target, Smithfield Meats, and of course the Food Network, which dropped her like hot hickory coals.
A crisis such as this is overwhelming. It consumes all you do and there is no defense.
Dan Hill, president of the D.C. communications firm Ervin/Hill Strategy. told NPR:
“I think I’m one of the best in my field. I can’t help her get out of this in a week … This is the kind of thing that will maybe take years — decades — for her to overcome.”
There are parallels. Richard Nixon after he resigned; orange juice spokeswoman Anita Bryant’s anti-gay slurs; Paul Reubens/Pee Wee Herman’s sexual allegations. All were accused of saying or doing vile things, but as time passed they reacquired some measure of respect.
It can be done. The first step for Deen, which she’s tried mightily to do, is issue a complete apology, ask forgiveness and then do something to show she wants to repent. Meet with all the African-American ministers in her home Savannah. Listen to their advice and follow it. Do that privately and don’t talk about it unless asked.
And announce that when the still-planned Paula Deen Museum opens in Albany, GA, it will have a section on racism, its ill effects and this whole episode. That will back up all your remorse with a positive admission that might help change some people’s thinking.
The only way to erase evil is with a whole lot of good. Start cooking.
The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at http://www.mower.com. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.