Crisis Communications 101: What Should Paula Deen Have Done Differently?

Editor’s Note:  David Johnson discusses the branding lessons and impact of Deen’s fall in this post and was also featured Monday on CBS This Morning.  

David E. Johnson,CEO, Strategic Vision, LLC

If ever someone is in need of crisis communications, it’s celebrity chef, Paula Deen.  Deen admitted to using the ‘N’ word in reference to African-Americans.  Usually any scandal involving race is a career killer, just ask Michael Richards, Jimmy the Greek, and others whose careers ended after comments involving race.  Deen’s attempts at dealing with the crisis have done nothing to dispel the opinion that this is a career killer, as the Food Network cancelled her show.  Her efforts have actually made the situation worse.  And more is yet to come as the deposition was recorded and at some point, the video may be released.  What is amazing is that Deen and her team were caught so unprepared.

So what should Deen have done differently?

  1. Settle the case long before it got to this stage.  This case was a ticking time bomb for Deen.  The impact of settling the case and moving on would have been minimal compared to the damage that has been done to her and her brand.

  1. If the case could not have been settled, have a crisis communications plan in place to lessen the damage that was destined to happen when the deposition was leaked to the media.  This plan would have encompassed the following:

    • A strongly worded apology to her fans and the public for the use of the derogatory words and any offense that she has caused.  A sincere request for forgiveness and asking people to judge her not just by this but the sum of her entire life including the work she has done in the minority community in Savannah.  Rather her initial statement, appeared to blame her use of the terms on her southern heritage giving the media and late night comedians fodder to keep the story alive.
    • A media offensive by her public relations team.  This offensive should have stressed that the depositions were leaked to put Deen in a bad light and force her to settle the lawsuit.  Also included in this offensive should have been statements by employee (both past and current), colleagues, and members of the African-American community that could attest to Deen’s character, lack of racism, and also call attention to this being part of an ongoing lawsuit and the leaks appear designed to force Deen to settle.
    • An exclusive interview (as was planned on the Today Show).  In this interview, Deen would answer anything that was asked of her, appear contrite and humble, and strongly without reservation denounce racism.
    • Silence.  After doing the above steps, total silence on the subject would allow the issue to die.

 Deen of course did not follow this strategy, and her actions have only made the situation worse with many in the media acting like sharks when there is blood in the water.  Now that the damage has been done, can her brand recover?  Possibly.  If so she has mere days to put a new comprehensive strategy in place that would encompass the following: 

  1. A strongly worded statement acknowledging that she has failed to address the issue adequately.  Apologize for her words and explain fully in detail the context in which she used those words.  If there is anything else that might come out, address that issue and get in front of the story.  Ask for forgiveness.

  2. Have people speak up in her defense such as colleagues, employees, and members of the African-American community both in Savannah and nationally.  The claim of her PR people should be that those who know Deen, know her best and can vouch for her.

  3. An exclusive interview that Deen answers anything that is asked of her, shows real contrition and denounces all form of racism. In this interview, she needs to appear humble, apologize for her statements, denounced racism as strongly as possible.  She should also announced proceeds from some of her profits are going to a minority based charity and this episode has awakened her as never before to the issue of racism.

  4. Settle the lawsuit.  Allowing this case to continue or even go to trial means a death of a thousand cuts.

  5. Deen needs to step away and stay quiet for a period of 3 to 6 months and adopt a charity.

  6. Reintroduce herself to Americans and go back to what she does best – cooking.

While this strategy will not undo all of the damage and restore her brand to its previous luster, it will at least prevent her brand from totally collapsing and salvage something of her reputation.  Otherwise, Deen and her brand will always be tarnished with the ‘r’ word behind their name – racism.


 About the Author:  David E. Johnson is the CEO of Strategic Vision, LLC, a public relations and branding agency that specializes in crisis communications, branding, and media relations.  Additional information on Johnson and Strategic Vision, LLC may be obtained at





  1. Kathy Lewton on June 25, 2013 at 10:56 am

    All good advice but as usual in these situations,what ruled the day and the decision-making was the good old “h” word.


    Dean, like Lance Armstrong, Nancy Brinker at Komen, the leaders at Penn State, Gordon Gee and so many others, assumed that with power, fame, wealth comes invulnerability. They are above it all.

    So no sensible 101 approach — they just assume they’ll muscle through it and their adoring fans/supporters will carry the day.

    And, as always, not the case.

    There should be a hubris vaccine, but usually by the time folks like these reach the exalted heights, they are surrounded by syncophants who help htem think their bubble constitutes reality. Anyone offering sound, solid counsel such as Mr. Johnson outlines, would be pushed out of the room.

  2. Alyson Miller on June 25, 2013 at 11:05 am

    Thank you David. I’ve been waiting to see someone in the crisis communications arena deliver an analysis along the lines of “can this brand be saved?” Yours is excellent. However, I think the media and our marketing colleagues are missing a greater opportunity here: to really gain a deeper understanding of how racism in our culture is perceived and discussed in communities of color. For instance, since Paula’s fantasy of a plantation (slave) themed wedding were revealed, THAT has been discussed (and ridiculed) on and on Twitter, more than her use of the “N” word. My take: to save a brand, crisis communications should acknowledge the deeper hurt of perpetuating stereotypes and take affirmative steps to counter the negative imagery in the culture. But of course Paula is being sued – and to do so, in this instance, would support the plaintiff’s case.

  3. David E. Johnson - on June 25, 2013 at 5:22 pm

    Thanks Kathy. This appears to be an episode where the client is doing their own PR and that spells disaster. The bigger problem is that Deen doesn’t seem to get the magnitude of the disaster or why these comments are offensive.

  4. David E. Johnson - on June 25, 2013 at 5:39 pm

    Alyson, I agree totally and would not be surprised if this does not open up some type of racial discussion. I really think though Deen doesn’t fully grasp how this behavior is wrong.

  5. Christopher Springmann on June 28, 2013 at 10:57 am


    Thanks and you are right on, in retrospect; however, the train has left the station and gone over a cliff, at least according to Wal-Mart, Caesar’s, Target, the Food Network, Novo Nordisk . . did I miss anyone?

    The issue isn’t that she received bad PR, she didn’t receive any (or ignored it), deciding instead to wing-it with her weepy send-up of Tammy Faye Bakker. I’m sure the IABC and PRSA are preparing a case history on this one, which will be filed right behind Komen, Penn State, Lance Armstrong, as you suggested.

    The gold standard for crisis behavior is still J&J’s Tylenol brand with Odwalla a close second: tell the truth first and often to any and everyone who will listen; positive actions speak louder than words and mere good intentions; take responsibility and be accountable; UPDATE! check into celebrity rehab and become invisible. Get off the radar and the front page.

    Martha Stewart did a variation of that and did FINE.