Once again, a well-known personality has demonstrated how not to handle a PR crisis. This summer, it was Paula Deen’s turn. And, oh boy, did she ever mess it up… in the same time-honored tradition of Martha Stewart, Tiger Woods and many before her.

Let’s put aside how Deen could have allowed a work environment of alleged racial overtones and discrimination to exist in the first place. The damage to her career came after the lawsuit brought by a former manager was made public when Deen started breaking some basic rules from the PR Crisis 101 handbook.

  • She was poorly prepared from the get-go. When asked in her deposition if she had ever used the N-word, she did not just simply admit to it, she replied, “Yes of course.” You think maybe a simple “yes” might have sufficed here?
  • Then she rushed her next move. In a knee jerk response as the deposition details leaked, she scheduled an interview with the Today Show, who promptly promoted it heavily. Then after actually thinking about it, she cancelled. Bad press gone worse.
  • Then still not having made a well thought out official statement, she released a poorly produced and disingenuous Youtube video. Realizing that this was back-firing, she pulled it and sent a second video to Matt Lauer of the Today Show, attributing her no-show appearance to exhaustion. Not done, she uploaded yet a third video, this one to the general public once again. By now, she was like fried grits left on the skillet too long. Burnt to a crisp.

After watching various PR crises over the years, I realize how important it is to have a communication plan in place to control and effectively respond to a crisis. Here’s a plan to follow should you ever have to deal with a potential PR crisis:

  1. Treat all incoming inquiries seriously.
  2. Take the time to fully research the facts.
  3. Buy some time, then respond within 48 hours.
  4. Develop talking points and get everyone on the same page.
  5. Connect with major stakeholders.
  6. Select a primary spokesperson and make an official statement.
  7. Avoid “no comment” as it can imply culpability.
  8. Express empathy and concern when victims are involved.
  9. Stick with the story and do not elaborate.
  10. Take considered action.

Now back to Paula. With this plan in mind, what could she have done differently?

Perhaps the most egregious error was the poor communication right out the gate in the following days after her deposition was leaked. No spokesperson, no official comment, no press release, no lines of communication opened with the press (except for the cancelled Today Show appearance). This total lack of communication did enormous damage.

Things didn’t get any better when she did start talking. In her eventual appearance on The Today Show, she said “I is what I is and I’m not changing.” While she did admit to using some racial slurs, she actually dug herself even deeper by never offering a truly sincere apology. Think about how she could have helped herself at that point by saying something to the effect of “I am truly sorry for my statements and apologize to those I have offended” and following that with steps to improve and rectify things for the future. Maybe start a fund to raise awareness of workplace discrimination and to address solutions to the problem.

How ironic it is that the discrimination lawsuit that started all of this was dismissed last week. Deen could have avoided all the damage to her personal brand and her business if she had responded in a better way. She could have controlled this story by responding in a timely way, being honest and transparent with the media, showing remorse and offering a genuine follow-up plan. Without a plan or a clue in place however, she stumbled her way into the same “fall from grace” that we have seen countless celebrities experience.

PR crises are never pleasant. They can be painful and damaging. However, rarely are they lethal unless you make it so. The American public will almost always forgive, but only if you respond well. When faced with a liability, turn it into an asset by demonstrating how positively you can respond to correct problems and make things better than they were before the situation surfaced in the first place.

As they say “never waste a crisis”.

I hope the next celebrity headed for a train wreck paid attention to this story.

Photo credit: Flickr