by Steve Adubato, PhD
When professionals in a particular field communicate outside of their area of expertise, bad things can easily happen. Recently, Paula Deen, who became famous cooking up cholesterol and fat-rich foods, got into a huge “branding” problem when her comments about race, slavery, the Civil War and related subjects went viral. It wasn’t just about Deen using the “N-word” when describing what she considered a great southern wedding she was planning for her brother, but it was also a 2012 New York Times televised forum in which she talked about her great-grandfather “losing all the workers” (actually 30 slaves who were set free), which ultimately caused him to go into his barn and shoot himself “because he couldn’t deal with those kind of changes.”
Remember: Paula Deen was famous for her communication around food. However, it was her communication about anything BUT food that's gotten her into hot water. At this same New York Times forum, Deen attempted to make what she must have thought was a joke by asking an African American employee, Hollis Johnson, to join her on stage while noting he was as “black as this board”, referring to the dark backdrop behind her.
And finally, in that same forum, Paula Deen would say that it was hard for others to understand the relationship that slaves had with many southern families because, “Back then, black folk were such an integral part of our lives. They were like our family, and for that reason we didn’t see ourselves as prejudiced.”
Like I said, Paula Deen communicating about race relations, slavery, or the Civil War is dangerous stuff. The fact that she put out a video on YouTube trying to defend herself demonstrated her inability to effectively communicate in a venue in which food and cooking utensils were not available to her as props. In the video, Deen communicated in an uncomfortable, stiff, and awkward fashion. What made it worse was that she chose to do these Internet videos after initially canceling an appearance on the TODAY Show in which she was supposed to answer questions about the “N-word” controversy.
It was in fact the TODAY Show that helped build Paula Deen’s brand, and by stiffing them, she made things worse. Full disclosure; I went on the TODAY Show earlier this week saying that by ducking the opportunity to answer direct questions when you face a PR crisis, you send the message that you are less than confident. I also said that Paula Deen had a responsibility to do something more than the YouTube video in an effort to communicate how serious she was about the situation. On Wednesday of this week, Deen DID go on the TODAY Show to communicate her side of the story, and she handled herself pretty well. She seemed sincere and contrite, but so much damage had already been done. She waited too long to go public in a meaningful way.
Ultimately, Paula Deen's biggest mistake is one that is made by so many highly visible celebrities and professionals who make their reputation in one field, but communicate in sloppy, awkward and irresponsible ways when it comes to other topics. Consider Serena Williams, who put tennis talk aside to discuss her harshly negative opinions toward a Steubenville, Ohio rape victim. Later, she had to apologize for her highly insensitive comments. Or, Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman, who told his injured and much-maligned third baseman, Alex Rodriguez, to “shut the f--- up” this week, after Rodriguez tweeted that he was ready to play. Cashman later said that he regretted the choice of words he used.
The lesson here? We all must be more disciplined in our communication and realize that when we venture outside of our area of expertise, bad things can and DO happen. Being less quotable isn’t the worst thing in the world.