Up until a week ago, this wasn’t a problem but Paula recently admitted that she used the “n” word 30 years ago after being held at gunpoint by a black man. Since her admission during a court deposition, she has lost all of her corporate sponsors.
It’s easy to understand why these sponsors aren’t sticking by Paula. They are afraid that her lapse 30 years ago could have been repeated in her restaurants with staff.
I’m still a fan of Paula Deen. She has apologized but that isn’t going to solve the problem. An apology at this point begs the question – Is she sorry for the racist speech or is she sorry that she was caught? I believe the former, but the optics, as politicos say, are hard to ignore here.
Along with a heartfelt apology, I would recommend an equally heartfelt content marketing strategy.
No. I’m not crazy. Stick with me.
Frame the Story
Paula Deen grew up in the segregated south. Nigger was as popular a label then as “Redneck: is today. Her family used the term. Her friends used it. As she admitted, she used it after being held at gunpoint by a black man.
She was wrong. However, it’s important to understand the context. Even though we can’t condone her speech, we can begin to understand why.
Is Paula a racist? My heart says she isn’t. Is she a creature of her past and upbringing. Yep.
For the last week, Paula has allowed the media to set the context. This is another mistake that is getting worse by the second. Paula needs to tell her story in detail. We need to hear about where she grew up. We need to hear about her relationships with black people and how her world view was shaped by the segregated South.
We need to hear about that day she was held at gun point. What she felt and why she chose to call her assailant a nigger.
Again we can’t give Paula a pass but I would like to understand.
Suggestions for Smith & Company
Paula has hired Smith & Company, a prominent celebrity crisis management firm, to handle the crisis. I suspect that the pros at Smith & Company will advise Paula to set-up an interview with Oprah, release an official apology, and perhaps put together a press conference to let the media fill another news cycle with fresh apologies.
This playbook might work. I would recommend a different – content strategy.
- Shoot a short documentary on Paula’s background. Right now she’s a one-dimensional character that is easy to misrepresent and misinterpret.
- Reach out to people that Paula has interacted with and ask them to share their stories. Post these stories on Paula’s blog. It’s sad and disconcerting that her blog at PaulaDeen.com isn’t representing the woman, entrepreneur, survivor, and mom. The blog is taking about Summer Burger’s and not addressing the most important issue in her career. Today it’s business as usual. A big mistake that should be corrected in the next 24 hours.
- Put Paula on a Google Hangout. Have her respond to questions via YouTube videos. Resist the urge to package her into a hermetically sealed soundbite. I can’t help but admire and love Paula when she talks. Let her loose.
- Show the contrast between her fan’s forgiveness and the media’s favorite bloodsport of leading another celebrity to the gallows. Her blog, Pauladeen.com, Twitter, and Facebook should be used to monitor her fan and critics conversation and respond where appropriate.
- Most importantly, lay out the case for Paula’s 2nd chance. She deserves one. Paula’s ex-sponsors are jumping ship because they seen an unsure, misrepresented, bigot at best and racist at worst. I wonder if these sponsors would be so quick to distance themselves if Paula was taking the lead on frankly discussing race relations, prejudice and the impact of the past on our future. In a way, Paula represent’s an important step we all need to take to understand the past, forgive and move forward.
Paula Deen and Team should be shaping this dialogue. I’m sure there are others, black and white who will stand with her.