Paula Deen: Sorry Works, But only if you Say It
There are those who will never forgive Paula Deen for her former trespasses. As her books continue to fly off the shelves, it’s apparent that there are also those who will stick with her despite the revelation of disgusting, racist comments made years ago. When those statements first came to light last week, the rest of her audience was still up for grabs. But with each passing day of stubborn denial, that population shrinks dramatically. As broadcasters, retailers, and sponsors flee, it seems Ms. Deen never learned a key tenet of crisis communications today: Sorry works, but you actually have to say it.
While it was an ill-advised point to make on the Today Show last week, Ms. Deen did strike a chord when she said that anyone in the audience who had never said anything they’ve regretted should pick up a rock and throw it at her head. After all, who among us has never uttered something stupid or hurtful? Ms. Deen was under oath and asked if she had ever used the “N Word.” She could have perjured herself (never a smart strategy), but instead was honest about mistakes she seems to regret. The problem is that she thinks she deserves points for that. But candidness is not repentance; and honesty is not an apology.
Now, unless I was reading Huckleberry Finn, or some similar reference, I have never used the “N Word.” Since childhood, I have been sensitive to the fact that diversity is one of our universe’s great gifts. But that said, I think many people like me could have found it in their hearts to forgive Paula Deen if she had only asked our forgiveness. I truly feel sorry for her, but I can’t say I’m impressed by her bumbling this past week (full disclosure, as a serious cook of healthy foods, I never would have bought her cook books, but I might have found her a better human being). Just look at the PGA’s Sergio Garcia. His racially insensitive comments directed toward Tiger Woods are already fading in the rear-view mirror. Why? Because he said he was sorry for a stupid mistake that he vows never to repeat again.
How difficult would it have been for Paula Deen to face the same cameras she cooks in front of every day and simply say “I’m sorry; I hope you will forgive me sooner than I can forgive myself?” How difficult would it have been to make an act of contrition that buttressed her apology with action? Instead, Ms. Deen forces upon us the “there but for the grace of God go I” narrative, rather than let us come to that conclusion naturally. Instead, she shows the most emotion when denying that she is a racist and making public calls for sponsors not to drop her – and demonstrates that she cares more about her image and income than those who were offended by her comments. Instead, she has seemingly opted for a prolonged, tortured process that may never lead to true redemption.
All of this makes it easy for Smithfield Foods, Target, Wal-Mart, and others to cut ties with her brand, which some industry insiders already saw as a “declining asset.” It gives the Food Network an easy excuse to not renew her show, which has long been declining in the ratings. It even forces the hand of book publishers such as Random House, who are dropping what some call “a guaranteed bestseller” because Ms. Deen is simply too toxic.
If it were only TV and retailers that were running for cover, one could argue that this episode is being leveraged to paint cold business decisions as “the right thing to do.” But when publishers ignore Ms. Deen’s staggering numbers on Amazon.com, it’s clear her reputational nightmare hasn’t been adequately addressed.
In the pantheon of celebrity sins we have pardoned in the past, Paula Deen’s is not the worst we’ve encountered. But before the public can embrace that fact, she has to say I’m sorry – and show she means it. Anything less and she can kiss all but her most die-hard fans goodbye.
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Richard Levick, Esq., Chairman and CEO of LEVICK, represents countries and companies in the highest-stakes global communications matters — from the Wall Street crisis and the Gulf oil spill to Guantanamo Bay and the Catholic Church. Mr. Levick was honored for the past four years on NACD Directorship’s list of “The 100 Most Influential People in the Boardroom,” and has been named to multiple professional Halls of Fame for lifetime achievement. He is the co-author of three books, including The Communicators: Leadership in the Age of Crisis, and is a regular commentator on television, in print, and on the most widely read business blogs.