Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Business of Apology

The Shunning of Paula Deen 
The Paula Deen saga has chewed up a huge amount of time in mainstream and social media, around the dinner table and at the proverbial water cooler. The issue, the person, the entanglements are all hard to resist – I'll admit to tweeting about her five times. (Six, when I finish this article and attempt to get some views.)

The Food Network, Smithfield Foods, Walmart, Target, Caesars Entertainment, QVC, Novo Nordisk, Sears, Kmart, J. C. Penney and Random House have ended or suspended ties with Ms. Deen. These actions are linked to her admission (in a lawsuit deposition) of using the N-word 30 years ago.

But I think it’s a more complicated issue. After all, her proclivities have been known for some time. Commenting on slavery in the Old South during a 2012 NYT interview, she said, "They were like our family." Being bought and sold, held against your will and forced to work are not congruent with the definition of family. What a stunning example of a person devoid of empathy. But, even with this on the record, Deen’s empire grew.

I posit that Deen could have survived the N-word admission if she had apologized in a coherent, timely and authentic way (and took a proactive step – involvement with an anti-discrimination project, for example). Instead, there was chaos. A video apology – a “statement” – was posted, only to be removed hours later (though you can view the video here). You can see four very obvious splices in under a minute, which implies that her public relations crew had to work hard to piece together a few messages. You have to wonder what ended up on the cutting room floor! Though she said, “inappropriate, hurtful language is totally, totally unacceptable,” Deen actually spends more time begging for forgiveness. It’s a self-centered, woe-is-me jumble.

So, a second apology video was posted. But it didn’t start with any expression of remorse to her fans, patrons, business partners or the community. Her words were directed to Matt Lauer for standing him up on the TODAY show. She explained that her pain “has been tremendous.” Deen then went on to blame “the press” for an untrue portrayal of her and her family. Whether it's business, entertainment or politics, the defeated/fired/guilty often find a way to blame the media!

Video apology number three was directed again, incredibly, to Matt Lauer. Deen and/or her public relations counsel must have been terrified of making an enemy of him. She said, “I was physically in no shape to come in and talk with you. The last 48 hours have been very, very hard.” Sorry for your pain, Paula.

After five days of additional preparation, however, Paula Deen finally made her appearance on the TODAY show. When Lauer asked how she was doing, Deen missed the opportunity to launch into an explanation if not an apology. Instead, her narcissism took over as she responded, “I was overwhelmed. I was in a state of shock… There have been some very, very hurtful lies about me.”

Then, Lauer pounced. “Are you here to stop the financial bleeding?,” he asked. He knew, as did many others, that she was there to rescue her business interests. Deen attempted to stay positive and expressed her firm, life-long belief in equality. But Lauer brought it back to the financial issues. Deen responded, “I want people to know who I am… and I’m so distressed that people I’ve never heard of are all of sudden experts on who I am.” With no regard for how her words and actions made others feel, she went on to say, “And you know what distresses me the very most, Matt? Their words are being given weight.”

Lauer pointed at that, in her lawsuit deposition, she was asked, “Was using the N-word in telling a joke hurtful?” Deen answered, “I don’t know. Most jokes are about Jewish people, rednecks and black folks… I didn’t make up the jokes. They usually target, though, a group… I can’t, myself, determine what offends another person.” That statement speaks loudly to her fundamental lack of insight and judgment.

But Deen did apologize during this 13-minute exchange and teared-up while she discussed her ethics by telling a story about her grandson. She should have stopped there. In what seemed to be a planned message point relating the New Testament idiom of “Let him who is without sin, cast the first stone,” Paula Deen had a sad and disturbing meltdown. She blurted, "Pick up that stone and throw it so hard... that it kills me."

Clearly, her performance on the TODAY show did more harm than good. Before the interview, two companies dropped her. After the show aired, it seemed that her other business partners couldn’t distance themselves fast enough. To be clear, I’m not congratulating these companies. They didn’t make their decisions because of some high-minded sense of ethics; they just didn’t want to risk losing any sales by being caught in the fallout from this current controversy.

Remember, not only did Deen undermine her sweet, folksy brand with her slavery comment last year, she seemingly waited years to come out as a diabetic until she could sell more books and close an endorsement deal with health care company and insulin maker Novo Nordisk. With all the evidence, she seems to less "down home" and more calculating opportunist.

Looking back, Deen and her public relations counsel should have understood the potential public reaction to her racial slur, and taken more care in crafting a less selfish response. Looking ahead, she must decide whether to retreat, circle the wagons and speak only to her die-hard fan base, or make an overt attempt at repairing relationships and reengaging with a wider audience. Paula, choose the latter and show us how you’ll do better.

Between blog posts, I invite you to follow me on Twitter @pauloestreicher.


Unknown said...

Hi Paul,

An excellent analysis of the Paula Deen saga.

I had heard about the scandal but hadn't read any material about her apologies which has been making waves, so I read your analysis with keen interest.

As a communications advocate, I believe she would have spared herself a lot of grief, (and loss of sponsors), by offering a simple and brief apology taking responsibility for the blunder by:

- Stating she was sorry for making the racial slur,(however long ago it was made);

- Stating categorically that she regretted offending the Black race by making such a careless and ignorant statement and resolving to be more sensitive to such issues in the future;

- Asking forgiveness from the different stakeholders.

All the points above could have been delivered in about three minutes. (Even President Obama's first speech, delivered after the Boston bombings, was all of 3 minutes 17 seconds. In fact I wrote a post on that speech in April:

I am astonished that the issue was allowed to blow up to such a catastrophic extent. And really - what was her team of PR/crisis communications/reputation experts doing?

This is a classic example of what not to do when offering a public apology...

Great post!

P.S - I'm already following you on Twitter :-)

Greenan said...

Your post was very timely, unlike Deen's apology. I find that in times of crisis it comes down to a timely apology - Deen missed the "I'm sorry" window.

There are a lot of things that went wrong here - from Deen's awful remark to her numerous attempts to reach the public with scripted video. When she finally took a seat at the Today Show, it was too late. The sincerity, forced or not, seemed pushed and resulted in a failed apology.

As Helio Garcia says "stakeholders know 'stuff happens' and companies are forgiven all the time when bad things happen... but they won't be forgiven if they are seen not to care" --- the time lapse in Deen's response makes the public believe she did not care. And with such harsh words dropped, she needed to show she was sorry... and she didn't.