The PR Verdict On Paula Deen’s Apology (Again)

From the frying pan to….yesterday Paula Deen, the queen of comfort cooking, faced Matt Lauer, and the outcome was not so comfortable for either one.

Some have criticized Lauer for his brusque grilling of Deen. My view is that he took a no-nonsense approach, cutting to the business issues and her motive for finally living up to her original commitment to a live interview.

The real story here is Paula’s apology, if you can call it that. It was all over the place. Things started out okay, with Deen describing herself as “overwhelmed” – an honest, but not loaded, word. Then she thanked the partners who have stood by her and declined to blame The Food Network for dropping her. All good.

Then things really got overwhelming. First, she insisted she had used the n-word only once, after being robbed at gunpoint by a black person “a world ago.” This contradicted her deposition and her original excuse that she grew up in the days of Jim Crow. Her demeanor became indulgently sorrowful. The drama peaked when she tearfully challenged anyone watching who has never said something they regret to “please pick up that stone and throw it so hard at my head that it kills me.” Whoa, Paula. It was both a not-so-coded biblical reference and an overemotional response.

As the interview wrapped, defiant Paula emerged, proclaiming “I is what I is,” and referring darkly to “someone evil out there” who sabotaged her out of envy, presumably the former restaurant manager who filed the suit that set up the media feast. Lauer, rather than following up on her reference to enemies and “horrible lies”, ended the interview. For Deen, this was probably a good thing.

Is Paula cooked? It does look that way. Her handling of the interview lacked the key ingredients for an effective public apology and her inconsistent and overemotional responses stirred things up instead of calming them down. It’s best to take responsibility, express sincere remorse, then make amends if possible. Deen would have done well to admit the truth, talk about what she has learned, ask for forgiveness, and pledge her time and/or money to a cause or program that promotes tolerance.

Also, an effective mea culpa doesn’t focus on the one apologizing. It should be about those offended or harmed by the situation, – in this case, sponsors, staff, viewers, and fans. It would have been impossible to deflect all the questions about her business and her brand, but she didn’t even try to take herself out of it. Ironically, her apology video, though stilted and inadequate, did a better job on that score.

Deen’s fumbles may also be tied to a lack of good PR counsel. Her original publicist, a 36-year veteran of the biz, resigned after Deen disclosed her diabetic condition and announced a partnership with Novo Nordisk. I’ve no idea who’s been advising her now, but she should consider a change. There’s a rumor that she’s hired Judy Smith, the D.C.-based crisis guru known as the model for Kerry Washington’s character on “Scandal.” I hope it’s true, because Paula needs professional help.

Does Matt Lauer Hate PR?

People in PR-agency-land are getting steamed this week about our industry’s reputation. Again. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz appeared on the NBC-TV’s “Today” to talk about his jobs creation fund, which will raise cash for micro-loans to small businesses, and host Matt Lauer was less than gracious.

Lauer allowed Schultz to outline the program, but he seemed to be trying to get the Starbucks chief to admit he launched the initiative to sell more lattes. Or, as he rephrased it later, for “PR” reasons. Schultz calmly responded that the fund has nothing to do with marketing or PR for Starbucks.

So, why is “PR” a dirty word, we ask? In a post wonderfully titled, “Matt…Matt…Matt…You’re Glib,” PRSA stirred things up about Lauer’s discourtesy towards Schultz and his dismissive attitude towards what we do.

PR Newser‘s Tonya Garcia has a different take. She suggests that Schultz could have responded along the lines of, “We want people to know that Starbucks cares about the issue and we’re going to let people know about it. And if that makes us look good, great.” In other words, de-stigmatize the question, and the term, by returning to its literal meaning. The broader point, of course, is that PR and philanthropy can coexist.

I love Garcia’s point, and she’s right. But I think the Matt Lauer brew-haha goes beyond that. As an industry, we’re being just a bit overly sensitive about our own reputation issues. Yes, they’re real, but sometimes, it’s just not about you.

This is one of those times. The point here isn’t Matt Lauer’s view of PR, or what the word “public relations” connotes. It says less about our industry than it does about, …well, my list is pretty long, but it includes the following: the deplorable state of morning talk show infotainment; the demonization of “big business”; the presumed liberal media bias backlash; and Starbucks’ own reputation, which has been shaded with misunderstanding. (I worked with Starbucks as a client for several years, so count me as possibly biased.)

But I think the PR mavens should simmer down and wait for the next opportunity to defend ourselves from attack. It’s bound to happen soon.

And for the record, there’s one word Schultz used that sums up the jobs fund program more accurately than “marketing,” “reputation,” or “PR,” at least for my money. That word is “leadership.”