Lessons for Your Career from Paula Deen’s PR Catastrophe

Posted July 2, 2013 by Cassandra Ehrhart in On the Ladder
Unless you’ve been living under a rock the last few weeks, you’ve heard the controversy surrounding Paula Deen’s recent lawsuit, controversial statements, and the PR catastrophe that has ensued since the story broke to the media. But just in case you’re crawling out from under that rock today, let me fill you in on the details of the Paula Deen disaster.

On June 19th, the media leaked a court deposition given by Paula Deen in May 2012. In the deposition, Paula commented using the N-word and her desire for a Southern plantation style wedding that featured black waiters serving guests (in a tone hearkening back to slavery in the south).

The biggest PR faux pas, though, came in reaction to the backlash she received from the release of the deposition to the media and fans.  Paula issued two video apologies and a written apology. And while I understand Paula’s efforts to salvage her career, there is much to be learned from her poorly executed attempts at apologies:

Next time you make a mistake in your career, consider these three pieces of advice:

  1. Don’t make excuses for poor decisions: 

    In her written apology, Paula claims because she grew up in the South during the 50’s and 60’s, her views and vocabulary are understandable. These kinds of excuses don’t bode well for anyone trying to clean up a PR mess. When we make a mistake we have to accept and admit we did something wrong. If you are truly at fault, take the blame. Don’t push blame off onto something like circumstances, another person, etc. Don’t make excuses for your actions, especially when your actions have an impact on the business in which you work (or in Paula’s case, multiple businesses she owns and operates)

  2. Be sincere when you apologize: 

    In the first video apology released, Paula doesn’t state what exactly it is she’s apologizing for. The video is awkward, uncomfortable, and feels forced. If you’re going to give an apology, don’t half-ass it. Be sincere. Legitimately apologize for your actions. If you don’t feel you should have to apologize, then don’t bother. Paula’s first apology confused the audience, and felt like an insult to people who were rooting for her. Her continued apologies and multiple videos felt less and less sincere, and more like contained cleanup than true apologies.

  3. Always be aware of who and what you represent, inside and outside the office: 

    Paula is not only a celebrity chef, but a symbol of American and Southern culture. Her racist comments reinforced a negative stigma of southerners, much to the chagrin of her friends, neighbors, and former supporters. These same folks also happen to comprise a majority of her fans so she unwittingly indicted them as much as she did herself. Be aware of your actions and comments, even outside of the office. The use of social media makes it even easier to hurt your reputation and the reputation of your company, so be conscious of what you are portraying online and off, inside the office and out.

Ultimately, I hope none of you will experience a PR mess even close to the size of what has happened to Paula Deen this month, but can still learn from her mistakes. When you do something, big or small, to tarnish your reputation or that of your company, the key to redeeming yourself is sincerity, honesty, and hard work.

About the Author

Cassandra Ehrhart

Cassandra Ehrhart is a results driven, public relations professional. She's currently a senior at Indiana University, Bloomington. This semester she's working for Coca-Cola as a Brand Ambassador, Author Solutions, Inc. as a Marketing Intern, and serving as the 2013-2014 Director of Communications for IU's Public Relations Student Society of America. She’s a bona fide dog lover from a small town in Indiana. There's not much that makes her happier than her niece and red wine. Cassandra is passionate about the mission of CGN and is proud to contribute her knowledge as a rising career girl.