Saturday, June 29, 2013

Making the Deen list

Blame Paula Deen's implosion on a slow news cycle. And no PR strategy for dealing with criticism.

The absence of legislative newsmakers this week -- the Supreme Court killed DOMA and left for the summer -- leaves an overabundance of unspent media wattage. Where did it turn? On TV food celebrity Paula Deen. In a few short days after the disclosure that Ms. Deen had used the "N" word, she's been ditched by Wal-Mart, Ballantine Books, The Food Network, and Smithfield Farms. And probably had her Exxon-Mobil card cancelled.

(Curiously, you can still obtain Ms. Deen's recipes on the Food Network's website.)

Here's a different perspective:
  1. Everyone over age 30 has used the "N" word. Everyone. Often in jest. View Mel Brooks' 1974 comedy "Blazing Saddles," and you quickly lose count of the number of times it's used. (Borrow a DVD; when it airs on cable, every potentially offensive word has been bleached from the film.)
  2. Ms. Deen's problem, in my view, was not that she used the N-word in a courtroom, in a bank, or chatting among colleagues or employees. It's her panicky, over-the-top, scattershot response. Unscripted videos, haphazardly posted and taken down. Cancelling appearances on network talk shows, then coming on for a contrition-rich chat with Matt, days later. These did far more than magnify the problem. She telescoped the problem, giving it a far longer screen-life than it deserved.
David Huddleston, Cleavon Little. Blazing Saddles, 1974.
Liberal use of the N-words and firearms.
Neither you nor I believe Paula Deen is a demonic racist. But with CNN, NBC, CBS, ABC, and most other national media outfits, there's always an opportunity to ladle on another helping of "Bad, Bad Paula."

This morning, I learned that NPR had asked three PR executives in Washington, D.C. if they thought Deen could recover from this episode. Worse, they headlined the piece as: How to Prove You're Not a Racist.

Really, NPR? You spoke to three PR executives. All males. In a town packed with public relations professionals at every Metro stop, you couldn't find one female PR expert?

NPR's all-boys-club story (not their shining moment) proves my point. At some level, we all have a bias. Theirs was to talk to three men in PR suits, and no women. They had an unconcious bias. Mel Brooks pokes fun at all our biases via satire. If Lorne Michaels and the SNL crew hadn't taken vacation, we'd see Vanessa Bayer tonight in spray-tan face makeup and a silver wig.

I'm not wise enough to know whether Ms. Deen is a racist. I do know she's a salesperson. She sells cholesterolized recipes and foods that no cardiologist would endorse. When she learned she had diabetes, she changed her diet, but the fried and sugary entrees kept on coming.

She knows what sells.

The same way Rush Limbaugh and Don Imus, both vilified for discriminatory on-air comments in recent years, continue their broadcast shenanigans. They and their employers knew that their brands could overcome their poor choice of words, given time, apologies, and a measure of moderation.

Ms. Deen's strategy should have been three steps: Apologize. Abate. and Align. "Abate", as in, get off the stage. Take a powder. "Align," as in, start meaningful conversations with allies and potential adversaries. Listen more than you talk. Move foreward to rebuild credibility with small groups and organizations, to show you're able to move forward from recent events.