Updated: Wed, 06/26/2013 - 07:23

Wading through a PR crisis

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So, what do you do when the sky caves in, as it has in the last week for Savannah culinary personality Paula Deen? What do you do when the past comes knocking in a most unfavorable way? What are the steps for digging out from under a public relations disaster?

Without speaking directly to the still-unfolding Deen contretemps, Jennifer Abshire, of the Savannah public relations firm that bears her name, said there are three basic rules for dealing your way out of any PR crisis.

“If you’re looking at a crisis, I think dealing with it directly is extremely important,” Abshire said Monday. “I do, however, believe that a simple statement is sufficient. And I think the most important thing for anyone who has dealt in crisis PR is to immediately get as much good news out as possible of the wonderful things the client or person has done to help the community.”

Robert Baugniet, a public relations expert now retired from Gulfstream and Rolls Royce, gave Deen credit for rising quickly to address the crisis that erupted when she admitted in a deposition for a civil lawsuit to using racially charged language in the past, including the N-word.

“The rule of thumb usually in a crisis situation is that if you can answer two questions, you can be helped if you answer them properly,” Baugniet said. “The questions are: When did you find out you had a problem and what did you do about it?”

Baugniet said he believes Deen is taking the proper strategic course by going on national television this week to tell her side of the story because that gives her the best opportunity for putting her own words into context, while also speaking to the uniquely American doctrine of innocent-before-guilty.

“To drop her, I believe some of those shows and networks and sponsors could have made a grievous mistake,” Baugniet said. “She has been guilty of the pillory of the media, and I find that offensive. In this country, to the best of my knowledge, you are innocent until proven guilty.”

 

‘What could go wrong, has’

Abshire and Baugniet aside, Savannah’s public relations professionals have, for the most part, been reluctant to comment, even in general terms, on Deen’s situation.

The national media and large crisis management firms, however, have been more than willing to weigh in with critiques and advice for Savannah’s celebrity chef.

So far, what could go wrong pretty much has, said Larry Kopp, president of The TASC Group, a communications firm for sports figures and celebrities with experience in high-profile, racially charged cases.

His current clients include the family of black teen Trayvon Martin, whose shooter, George Zimmerman, is on trial for second-degree murder.

In celebrity terms, where do Deen’s troubles land her in the crowded hierarchy of misbehavior?

“I think it’s right up there with Mel Gibson (who landed in hot water for his tirade against Jews, then offered a weak apology),” Kopp said. “One of the first rules of crisis is to apologize thoroughly and completely and immediately. She didn’t follow Crisis 101.”

Deen, 66, and her brother, Bubba Hiers, are being sued by Lisa Jackson, a former manager of Uncle Bubba’s Oyster House, a restaurant they own in Savannah. Jackson accused them last year of sexual harassment and a hostile environment of innuendo and racial slurs.

According to a transcript of Deen’s deposition, an attorney for Jackson asked Deen if she has ever used the N-word.

Yes, of course,” Deen replied, though she added: “It’s been a very long time.” And she said she doesn’t use the word anymore.

She bailed on the “Today” show on Friday, instead posting a series of criticized YouTube apologies. She was dropped by the Food Network the same day and has since lost her sponsorship with Smithfield Foods.

An apology, at this point, isn’t enough, said Dara Busch, executive vice president and managing director of Rubenstein Associates in New York, a PR company specializing in damage control.

“It will take years for her to fix how she will be viewed by the African-American community. She has to find ways to prove that she’s not that way any longer,” said Busch.

Kopp, Busch and others say Deen has been her own worst PR enemy in the fallout from her deposition, which also included her seeing the “beauty” in a Southern-style wedding she once considered for her brother, complete with formally dressed black waiters.

 

Calling Olivia Pope

Writing in The Daily Beast Tuesday, reporter Kevin Fallon speculated on how fictional TV “fixers” Olivia Pope of ABC’s “Scandal” and “Ray Donovan” of Showtime’s new series would handle Deen’s problems.

“Honestly, perhaps no PR team ever has handled a situation so poorly,” Fallon wrote.

“Amid the initial uproar over her usage of the N-word, Deen’s company released a baffling apology on her behalf saying that it’s OK that she used the word because she did it a long time ago and, besides, she’s old and from the South, where that used to be OK.

“Then she released three successive apology videos in which, done up in almost cartoonishly awful makeup, she mutters about being sorry in her heart while sitting in what appears to be the reception area of a dentist’s office.

“Olivia Pope, Ray Donovan, me, you, my 5-year-old cousin — pretty much anyone would’ve been smart enough to, if in charge of her PR, simply say, “Just keep your mouth shut and maybe it will blow over.”

Instead, Fallon said, “Deen’s crisis-management strategy was a model disaster.”

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