Paula Deen racism story too true, too ‘out’ to overcome now


News emerged earlier this summer that cooking giant Paula Deen admitted during depositions in a discrimination lawsuit against her that she had used racial epithets some time ago.

Merited criticism and media coverage ensued; she lost her TV show and probably much more. Word came Friday that the lawsuit settled without either side gaining anything. It just went away. Nevermind.

But the admissions and apologies that followed word of the depositions remain in the public record and the lawsuit’s settlement does nothing to change the facts.

The immediate crisis will likely fade for Deen, but the damage is done and she’s not going to re-emerge from it to anything commercially near what she had. She’s damaged goods.

As EMA reputation management guru Peter Kapcio concluded: Racism charges are nearly impossible to counter. They’re the neutron bomb of hostile attacks, especially when the “victim” makes them believable.

A relatively new phenomenon is occurring in crisis management, although we’ve seen sparks of this for awhile and many experts discussed its roots for years: Damage from a crisis now most likely occurs in the first hour, or two to six hours at most. This is when the media frenzy hits and the facts as they are at that moment engrave themselves in servers and brains worldwide, never to be erased.

The initial hours of a crisis, be it financial, sexual, political or legal, are so intense and so magnified by social media that it is nearly impossible to get out any facts to counter the first ones. You must therefore be in the mix when the starter’s gun goes off and have accurate facts and comment to stabilize your situation immediately.

There’s no time to call the lawyers, no time to “ascertain the facts,” no time to assemble a crisis team. Be fully prepared from the first second, or be prepared to suffer grave damage.

The Asiana Airlines crash this summer is a perfect example. As my Eric Mower + Associates partner Rick Lyke wrote:

When Asiana Airlines flight 214 crashed at San Francisco International Airport on July 6, passenger David Eun climbed from the wreckage, snapped a photo on his phone and posted a message on Twitter.

“I just crash landed at SFO. Tail ripped off. Most everyone seems fine. I’m ok. Surreal,” Eun wrote. His post with a photo of the smoldering jet was retweeted 32,789 times during the next few hours.

It took Asiana Airlines five hours to issue an official news release. That’s not too bad considering the company’s headquarters is in Seoul, where it was 3:25 a.m. when the jet crashed. Corporate executives had to be awakened. Facts had to be gathered. Press releases drafted, edited and approved by legal. But in terms of the 24-hour news cycle and the social media world, five hours feels like five months. Asiana Airlines also posted its release on Twitter, where it was retweeted 509 times.

Most people if asked today about what happened in that crash will tell you pilot error and inexperience led to the crash. We likely won’t know if that’s true or not for some months, until the National Transportation Safety Administration finishes its probe. But will it matter by then? How many empty seats are there in Asiana flights these days? The damage done in 140 characters.

The only antidote to this is to be ready in advance for the inevitable crisis, have 24/7 media monitoring, or at least availability for responsible officers or spokespeople. When a crisis starts it’s an intense sprint and you have to be all in.

Get your facts out fast, comment, be transparent, work to push out information, make your CEO available immediately, if not sooner.

We live in a world of lasting first impressions and you don’t usually get a second chance.

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.

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About steveoncrisis

The content is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It comes from Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and as managing editor and editorial page editor at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower and Associates, one of the nation's largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agency with six offices in the Northeast and Southeast.
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