Point of View

Can Paula Deen cook up redemption?

July 23, 2013 

Our Southern roots brought Paula Deen and me together for a weekend. As the troubled cook now slow-roasts in a communications catastrophe, I’ve thought about those few days and how they foretold both what happened and what’s still to come.

The off-the-cuff way Deen dealt with the crisis was not a surprise. But with the initial brouhaha now fading, the road to recovery may also involve some of the qualities I saw up close – and hold “comeback” lessons for other fallen figures, from politicians to pop stars.

To rewind, in 2008 a TV exec invited me to help script a pilot for Deen – a daytime talk show which would feature the deep-fried phenom cooking and commiserating with celebrities.

I got the nod because I’ve lived in the South for 30 years; the idea being that I could tune into Deen’s distinctly Dixie-dipped style and give it structure. Sadly, structure is exactly what Deen could’ve used more of over the last several weeks.

You’re likely familiar with the drama. In a legal deposition regarding one of her affiliated restaurants, Deen acknowledged using an abhorrent racial epithet. At one point, she put its use in the context of Southern culture.

During the three days we spent together making television, I neither saw nor heard the kind of antics described in the lawsuit. The Deen on display then was a whirling, twang-ing dervish – always in motion, quick with a quip and completely spontaneous.

That spontaneity worked like a sugar-coated charm for the cameras. But in business and politics a dangerously blurry line separates being spontaneous from being unstructured and unprepared.

According to Bloomberg Businessweek, the legal team filing the civil lawsuit against Deen made alarmingly plain its intentions to go public if the suit didn’t settle on certain terms. Yet Deen’s response once the allegations did indeed explode shows scant evidence of strategic planning.

During our pilot taping, Deen’s improvising improved anything we scripted. But improvisation is no mode for a major brand trying to right its course. Deen floundered in her initial attempts to address the claims, seemingly making it up as she went along, no “script” in sight.

Sticking to a script does not mean obfuscating. Just the opposite, the best approach in a crisis is to be open and direct. But again, Deen put herself in peril. Rather than taking complete responsibility, she cited her cultural upbringing. To many, it seemed like a dodge.

A successful response to an admitted misstep never involves self pity or shirking responsibility, but rather acknowledgement, apology and amends.

Deen’s from-the-hip approach continued in her dealings with press. Million-dollar personalities are best advised to carefully orchestrate their first post-mishap appearances. Deen’s most visible initial media exposure, on the other hand, involved abruptly cancelling her scheduled appearance on “The Today Show,” leaving Matt Lauer to fume and the story to steamroll.

By any account – including Deen bank accounts once enriched by the sponsors she has lost – the ongoing fallout has been a calamity.

But the qualities that made Deen could help to eventually restore a measure of her reputation.

First, Deen’s alleged and admitted past behavior was clueless, callous, cruel. But she did not mastermind an ongoing criminal scheme. In other words, she’s neither Bernie Madoff nor a terrorist. Her crimes fall within the broad boundaries of being haplessly human, and as such she’s roughly redeemable.

When she’s really cooking, Deen connects. She shares that enviable trait with another Southerner who’s no stranger to sin – Bill Clinton. In overcoming his own scandal, the former president has shown that forgiving a friend is an easier sell than welcoming back just another woebegone bureaucrat.

The fact that Deen is a bootstrapping entrepreneur bodes well. Restoration requires both focus – which should be on her cooking – and commitment. Deen has the latter covered, and Americans are constitutionally inclined to see great value – even penance and redemption – in hard work.

A final glimmer of hope involves the press. As a matter of business, everyone gets a second chance because second chances generate increased ratings and readers. The cliffhanger remains: can she master both the substance of making amends and the style of someone you want back?

There’s a saying in the South – “Bless your heart” – that’s a way of kindly shaking your head at someone’s blind spots. Plenty of business leaders now writing off Deen ought to learn from her mistakes and count their own blessings that a crisis has yet to catch them unprepared.

Billy Warden is the co-founder of Triangle-based messaging and marketing agency GBW Strategies.

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