Richard G. Jones, Jr.
Scholar, Educator, Author


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Paula Deen's Brand Crisis

Jun 23, 2013

And How a Crisis Communication Professional Could Have Helped

Paula Deen's Brand Crisis

The Food Network announced on Friday June 21, 2013 that it will cut ties with Paula Deen at the end of the month. This is just one more piece of fallout following the first revelation in 2012, that Deen and her brother were being sued for harassment and discrimination by a former employee.

Things got stirred up even more late last week when the contents of a recorded deposition for the lawsuit became public. The contents indicate, among other things, that Deen admitted to using the "N-word" and telling racist jokes.

The controversy gained more media attention after Deen failed to show up for a scheduled appearance on the Today show where she was expected to answer questions about the allegations. A few hours later, Deen uploaded an "oddly-edited" video apology that was 46 seconds long. Soon after, that video was removed and a longer, more continuous video apology was added.

Why I'm Scratching My Head

As a communication professional, I am baffled by this muddled and mishandled response by a woman who has enough "media savvy" to build a 17-million-dollar business empire. Even if she doesn't have the ability to address this, shouldn't she have people that work for her who can do it? This didn't come out of the blue. Deen and her staff have had more than a year to strategize and prepare for potential fallout from the lawsuit.

This is just another example of the important role that communication crisis professionals play in our media rich and largely reactionary society. Ideally, crisis communication professionals should be on staff and not only sought out after a crisis starts. But a small portion of Deen's millions of dollars could have hired a communication professional after the fact and helped her better manage this situation.

What follows is a section from my book, Communication in the Real World, that discusses the role of crisis communication professionals.

Crisis Communication Professionals

Crisis communication professionals create crisis communication plans that identify internal and external audiences that need information during crisis events. Effective crisis communication plans can lessen the impact of or even prevent crises.

Aside from preparing for crises and identifying stakeholders/audiences, crisis communicators also construct the messages to be communicated to the stakeholders and select the channels through which those messages will be sent. The crisis communicator or another representative could deliver a speech or press conference, send messages through social media, send e-mail or text message blasts out, or buy ad space in newspapers or on television.[i]

Crisis communicators must have good public speaking skills. Communicating during a crisis naturally increases anxiety, so it’s important that speakers have advanced skills at managing anxiety and apprehension. In terms of delivery, while there will be times when impromptu responses are necessary—for example, during a question-and-answer period—manuscript or extemporaneous delivery are the best options.

It is also important that a crisis communicator be skilled at developing ethos, or credibility as a speaker. This is an important part of the preparatory stages of crisis communication when relationships are formed and reputations are established. The importance of ethos is related to the emphasis on honesty and disclosure over stonewalling and denial.

A myth regarding crisis communicators is that their goal is to “spin” a message to adjust reality or create an illusion that makes their organization look better. While some crisis communicators undoubtedly do this, it is not the best practice in terms of effectiveness, competence, or ethics.

Crisis communication research and case studies show that honesty is the best policy. A quick and complete disclosure may create more scrutiny or damage in the short term, but it can minimize reputational damage in the long term.[ii]

Denying a problem, blaming others instead of taking responsibility, or ignoring a problem in hope that it will go away may actually prolong media coverage, invite more investigation, and permanently damage an organization’s or a person's image.

[i] Alan Jay Zaremba, Crisis Communication: Theory and Practice (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharp, 2010), 23.

[ii] Alan Jay Zaremba, Crisis Communication: Theory and Practice (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharp, 2010), 111.