March 27, 2014

What’s the problem?  Paula Deen is working on a comeback.  Are we ready?  The sunny queen of southern cooking and heartfelt comfort food went from being a beloved household name to a fallen star in a matter of weeks this past summer.   Deen was a symbol.  She was someone we could all relate to.  She was more than just a celebrity chef.  She was like the relative we all wished we had.  And, all that was lost with a single admission that she had dropped the N-bomb sometime in her past.  She broke our hearts.  She went from being the aunt we loved to a racist we wanted nothing to do with.  And every time she opened her mouth after she made things worse.  The fallout she’s dealing with is still very, very real.  The bottom line is that we lost trust in the very thing we loved most about Paula Deen—her heart.  And that is no small thing.

 

Who is impacted?  All of us who bought in to her image.  We feel let down.  We feel betrayed.  We feel like we were hoodwinked.  And she hasn’t done anything yet that makes us feel otherwise.  In fact, many of her statements made things worse.  Consider this gem her people released on June 20th:

 

Deen had “recounted having used a racial epithet in the past, speaking largely about a time in American history which was quite different than today.”  She was “born 60 years ago when America’s South had schools that were segregated, different bathrooms, different restaurants and Americans rode in different parts of the bus.  This is not today.  To be clear Ms. Deen does not find acceptable the use of this term under any circumstance by anyone nor condone any form of racism or discrimination.”

Um… Does that sound like a woman who is sorry?  Like she has learned?  I’m afraid not.  It sounds like a woman who is trying to justify some bad behavior.  And so, most of us turned our backs on her and her sob story (remember that disaster on the Today Show?).  Yikes.

 

Can she come back, and who should she look to for inspiration?  Absolutely, undoubtedly yes.  If Jerry Springer, Michael Vick, Bill Clinton, and Martha Stewart can have solid careers after a whole range of controversies, it’s definitely possible. Britney Spears has the hottest ticket in Vegas. An all-but-forgotten sex tape made the “careers” of Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian.  People love a comeback story almost as much as they love pillorying those who’ve made big mistakes.  The problem here is that we are talking about racism.  And that is hard to bounce back from.  Take a look at Mel Gibson.  And Michael Richards.  I do think it is possible though.  Because there was one big difference.  What she said was years ago.  When Mel Gibson and Michael Richards had their rants, it was modern day.  So, if she can gut out a week of late night jokes—and demonstrate that she is authentic in her desire to be a new and better woman—she has a chance.  Let’s just hope she doesn’t pull an Anthony Weiner and throw herself a plantation-themed Return to Relevance party (thanks Chris Manley for your help coming up with that one).

 

What do we think Paula Deen should do?  She has the opportunity now to be back in the spotlight and she is ready to use it.  Here at maslansky + partners we focus a lot on rebuilding trust.  And that is what she needs to do.  So, Paula Deen I say to you, stop making excuses and take responsibility.

 

Sounds easy.  But what should she actually say? If I were advising her, here are a few suggestions I would make:

  1. Be authentic and don’t walk away from what we love about you.  Think about how much you care about fixing this. Convey that. And for goodness' sake, be humble.  Your celebrity will look a little different than before—in fact it should look different.  Embrace that.  That will help you distance yourself from the symbol of racism in the South that you have become.  At the same time, don’t forget who you are.  We don’t want you to come back healthier.  Or different.  With some new, PR-seeking platform.  You still have a huge (even if closeted at the moment) fan base who will eat up whatever butter soaked dish your serving.  Embrace what we still love about you so we have something to hold on to. (Secret admission Paula: here at our company we all sat around one day close to Thanksgiving feasting on one of your gooey pumpkin cakes made by a genius colleague.  And we loved it—even if we were ashamed to say it out loud.)
  2. Take responsibility.   A lot of your fans argued that you were being mistreated and were a victim.  Unfortunately you seemed to buy in to that with all of your mascara-smeared crying on morning shows and appearances. Cut that out. Nobody cares about the millionaire victim.  So, take responsibility for your actions.  And in so doing, rebuild trust.  NOTE: this doesn’t mean apologizing (thanks to New York Times for calling that apology ceasefire).  Say something like, “I take responsibility for my actions.  Since the time I said those awful things, I have learned a lot.  I offer no excuses.  I can only tell you that I don’t like the woman I used to be.  And, I am working hard to be a better woman today.  I know I have to earn your trust and respect.  And I am committed to doing that.”
  3. Use your new partnerships to build credibility.   Partnerships are equivalent of third-party endorsements.  If those partners can trust you, maybe we can too.  It sounds like this new venture will reshape partnerships and how your celebrity is used – and that will go a long way to helping things look and feel different.
  4. Be positive.  Taking responsibility and addressing this doesn’t mean dwelling on the past or making excuses.  It requires you to be forward looking.  Once you have done all of the above, focus on the future. Be positive.

 

Bottom line, Paula: you need smarter advisors who you are really and truly listening to.  That means call us Paula.  We are here.  And I know we could help.

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