Deen must remain composed on 'Today,' PR experts say

2:55 PM, Jun 25, 2013   |    comments
Paula Deen addresses the nation.(Photo: YouTube via USA Today)
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Arienne Thompson, USA TODAY

Paula Deen is in free fall.

Just two days after Food Network dropped her from its roster, another major brand has let the Southern-fried, scandal-scarred cook go.

"Smithfield condemns the use of offensive and discriminatory language and behavior of any kind," the ham company, for which Deen was a spokeswoman, said in a statement Monday. "Therefore, we are terminating our partnership with Paula Deen. Smithfield is determined to be an ethical food industry leader and it is important that our values and those of our spokespeople are properly aligned."

The news is just the latest bullet point in one of the biggest celebrity scandals of the year. Since news broke last week that Deen admitted in a deposition that she had used a racial slur, the celeb chef has gone to work trying to repair her image. (The deposition was in conjunction with a lawsuit accusing Deen of fostering and maintaining a sexist, racist workplace at one of her Georgia restaurants.)

She has issued several apologies and has rescheduled a canceled Today show interview with Matt Lauer. (It will air Wednesday.)

She has thanked the network that fired her, calling her time with Food Network 11 "great years."

But what else must Deen do to get out from under the scandal that has landed her in the public eye and threatens to take down her empire?

First, she must "stay composed and be confident" Wednesday morning when she appears on the Today show for the interview she pulled out of last Friday, says branding expert Allen Adamson.

"She has to start off by apologizing to Matt for standing him up. Honesty is always the best policy, so she should say, 'I was overwhelmed with the intensity of the issue, and I didn't think I could compose myself on live television, and I'm sorry I let you down.' "

Adamson adds that Deen should avoid a spin campaign and do everything she can to steer clear of getting lost in the muck of what happened. Instead, she has to move forward with her core audience firmly in her sights.

"The country is split into 'I'm a Paula Deen fan' or 'I'm out to get her.' She should focus on her base: 'I am committed to continue to do what I do best, which is prepare great food. My focus is on cooking great-tasting food and my restaurants and my recipes.' "

David Johnson, CEO of Strategic Vision, a Suwanee, Ga.-based public relations and branding agency, recommends a different approach for her Today show opportunity. His strategy centers more on Deen atoning for her sins and appearing contrite for her comments and her PR flubs.

"She really needs to hammer that she denounces racism in all forms and shapes, that it has no place whatsoever," Johnson says. "She should announce that she's going to be active in fighting discrimination of all types because this (scandal) has really opened her eyes."

Deen also must realize that more disgruntled employees, former acquaintances and even dissatisfied customers will be coming out of the woodwork to get their punches in. And she has to get ahead of it - fast.

"This is death by 1,000 cuts. ... She needs to be prepared for it, and so do her people. Because the hardest thing is, how do you come out and say 'I'm not a racist'?"

Meanwhile, home shopping bastion QVC has not minced words in acknowledging that it has a big decision to make about maintaining ties with Deen, whose cookbooks and cookware it sells.

"QVC shares the concerns being raised around the unfortunate Paula Deen situation. QVC does not tolerate discriminatory behavior," the company said in a statement. "We are closely monitoring these events and the ongoing litigation. We are reviewing our business relationship with Ms. Deen, and in the meantime, we have no immediate plans to have her appear on QVC."

But Adamson says that if Deen continues to play to her base during this scandal, she may be able to save herself and part of her empire.

"Six months from now, if it's blown over and she's gotten back to her base and gotten back to her core, memories are short and other sponsors will show up," he predicts. "She needs to turn to the people who are lined up outside her restaurant and connect with them. ... What marketers are interested in is the passion of the people who follow you. No one today can appeal to everybody. What's more important is how loyal a celebrity's followers are, and the more loyal they are, the more important they are to marketers."

Contributing: Olivia Barker, Gary Levin

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