Crisis Management
Paula Deen’s Painful Lessons

As Paula Deen’s problems continue to mount, her situation offers powerful lessons in crisis management that any business should take to heart regardless of its size. If you fail to heed those lessons and your business experiences a crisis, mishandling it could be just as disastrous for your firm as Deen’s missteps have been for her empire.

Lesson #1. When a problem threatens the reputation of your business, deal with it decisively.  Otherwise, you run the risk of quickly losing the ability to tell your own story given our 24/7 news cycle and the power of social media. If that happens, others will almost certainly tell the story for you -- putting their own spin on it – probably making a bad situation worse for your firm. Furthermore, the longer you are not in control of it, the harder it will be for your business to get control back and the more damage your crisis will do.

Lesson #2. Don’t look like you are trying to hide from what has happened to your firm. Face its crisis head on. Part of why Deen’s crisis continued to build was that she cancelled abruptly her appearance on the Today Show, which made her look like she was trying to avoid answering Matt Lauer’s questions about her racist comments.

Lesson #3. Choose your words carefully. Words have power and just as the ones that Deen spoke years ago helped create her current crisis, the words she has used so far to explain herself both in her video apologies and during her rescheduled appearance on Today have only made a bad situation worse.

Lesson #4.  Make sure that your apology comes across as authentic. In other words, take full responsibility for what happened to create your crisis -- don’t point fingers at others – and don’t talk around your business’ problem. Deen did all of these things during her hugely botched Today appearance.

Lesson #5. If you apologize via video, make sure that it’s well conceived and executed. Deen’s initial video apology was neither. And, making matters worse, it was obviously edited. In other words, her apology did not come across as genuine and it was quickly taken down. Although Deen subsequently posted two more video apologies, both of them only added fuel to the fire and ensured that Deen and her problems remained in the news. As a result, her crisis continued far longer than it might have and an increasing number of companies became uncomfortable with Deen and severed ties with her, including the publisher of what was to be her next book.

Lesson #6. Choose an effective spokesperson to tell your story. If you can’t maintain your composure when you speak publicly about your business’ crisis, then you may not be the right person for the job. One of the risks of becoming overly emotional, like Deen did when she appeared on Today, is that you may use the “wrong words” (as Deen did) and turn off people who might otherwise have been willing to listen to what you had to say with an open mind and maybe even give you a second chance. The right spokesperson might be someone else with your business or even someone outside your firm.

Lesson #7. Have a general crisis management plan in place before a crisis occurs. Given her many missteps, it appears that despite her business success, Deen did not have such a plan, or her plan was poorly conceived and executed. Get professional help developing your plan and implementing it when necessary. Your current PR firm may be equipped to help you, assuming it has crisis management experience. If not, hire a firm that specializes in this area.

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