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Paula Deen’s Diabetes Disclosure: A Recipe for Poor PR?

 

As the queen of “comfort cuisine,” Paula Deen has been a favorite among many members of my family, all of whom live in Georgia or the Carolinas. I’ve admired Paula for her unapologetic taste for indulgence, and for her Southern fried authenticity and down home charm. I’ve never even watched her show, yet I feel I’ve known her for years. I even took her side in her food fight with Anthony Bourdain, though Bourdain was largely in the right.

But Paula’s recent revelation that she was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes has left a bad taste. And from a PR perspective, I’m not convinced that it’s been well handled.

When I caught her “Today” show interview, I felt a little queasy, and since then I’ve been trying to sort out why. Here’s what it boils down to:

Timing – Paula admits that she was diagnosed three years ago. She says waited until now to reveal her illness, which has been rumored since 2010, because she wanted to “bring something to the table.” I want to believe her, but three years is an awfully long time. For someone who’s hallmark is authenticity, it’s hard to swallow. It doesn’t take a business genius to conclude that Paula and her management were worried about the impact of her illness on her show and brand.

Commerce – Paula also announced that she has signed a spokesperson contract with Novo Nordisk, a producer of the diabetes drug she now takes. There’s nothing wrong with being a paid endorser, but it leaves her open to charges of opportunism. Was she waiting for a fat opportunity to monetize her condition?

Paula and her sons, who are also Novo Nordisk spokespersons, followed Monday’s disclosure with a hasty and vaguely worded announcement that they would donate an unspecified portion of their earnings to the American Diabetes Association. When contacted for comment, the association had no knowledge of the plan. The whole thing looked like an afterthought, because it was. More poor strategy and lack of planning. A donation as a centerpiece of her education program would have softened the blatant commercialsim of her deal and sweetened the message.

Clarity – But, what is the message? That medication lets you ignore diet and exercise guidelines? That you can cut back and still enjoy life? Beyond her headline talking point, “Diabetes is not a death sentence,” there’s no call-to-action. With respect, it seems half-baked.

Commitment – Paula’s been opaque about any personal diet and lifestyle changes since the diagnosis. Perhaps she doesn’t want to offend food industry advertisers, but her reticence is confusing. I don’t think she can be a credible role model if she doesn’t talk about adapting to her illness beyond “moderation.” She’s a tremendous brand with the power to inspire millions, but that equity may be at risk, or at least underleveraged.

Brand identity – Brand experts have weighed in on any conversion to lighter fare, calling it risky. I think the risk can be managed, especially since any change is driven by an authentic, real-life event, – her health condition. There’s plenty of opportunity to adapt. (How about a side-by-side comparison, full-fat vs. substitutions?) The plan is to anoint son Bobby as the healthy-eating advocate of the family, but it remains to be seen if he can ride Mama’s apron strings to success.

Paula says her show’s focus won’t change, and beyond giving up sweet tea, she’s vague about personal lifestyle changes. Problem is, she isn’t serving up enough to be as credible and convincing as she needs to be. She seems to want to have her cake, and eat it, too. But as we’ve seen, that can only go on for so long without consequences.

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Comments

  1. Sandra Beckwith

    I completely agree with you. You would think that Deen and her management team would know by now that transparency is key, especially when the brand is built around an individual. She’s opaque.

    She didn’t handle the interview well, either, which suggests to me that she knew that she wasn’t really doing the “right” thing by not disclosing her food-related disease until she could make money from it.

    I blogged about this PR mess also — would love your comments at http://bit.ly/x3rd2h.

    Thanks for a great article.

    Sandra Beckwith
    http://buildbookbuzz.com/blog

  2. Dorothy Crenshaw

    Yes, it’s disappointing. If she had announced it closer to the time of diagnosis, she would still have been approached by every pharma in the world. But she would have had to adapt her content earlier, and perhaps the emergence of the sons as healthy brands would have been more difficult. Still, a transparent approach would have been preferable IMO.
    And, now, to your post.

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