Can The Paula Deen Brand Ever Recover?

PR Pros Say It's Possible But Race Issues Are Toughest To Overcome

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Just about every day last week brought a new business partner dropping Paula Deen like a hot potato: The Food Nework; Smithfield Foods; Caesar's restaurants; Walmart; Target; Home Depot and J.C. Penney. Shopping channel QVC and diabetes drug maker Novo Nordisk also took a "pause" from their relationships with the embattled chef.

So can the Deen brand ever stage a comeback? PR pros say it's not impossible, but it will take a lot of time and a new outreach strategy.

Paula Deen apologizes on YouTube
Paula Deen apologizes on  YouTube 

The difference between Ms. Deen and other celebrities who've gone through high-profile crises is that the quintessential hot-button topic of race has come into play. Ms. Deen admitted in a deposition to using a racial epithet. The revelation was followed by two YouTube videos, the hiring of crisis communications pro Smith & Co. and a "Today Show" appearance in which Ms. Dean, in between tearful apologies, insisted she's not a racist.

"Racial issues in this country cut to core of who we are as human beings," said crisis expert Mike Paul.

And race-related issues rank in the top heirarchy of PR disasters. Gene Grabowski exec VP and crisis expert at Levick, said there are certain offenses the American public can more easily forgive over a period of time than others. A remark like Ms. Deen's is not one of them. "Race and sexual-predator behavior, especially if it involves children -- that's the peak," he said. "Just under that are sexual discretions and hypocrisy."

It's little wonder then, that many companies cut ties with Ms. Deen, including Kmart, Target and Walmart, which research firm NewMediaMetrics found have very high attachment scores among African-American women aged 18 to 64.

But all that said, PR experts believe there's still a chance Ms. Deen can redeem herself in the long run, though it won't be easy. "You go through an experience like this, your celebrity changes and how people look at you changes, but you're still famous," said Kent Jarrell, executive director leading APCO's crisis management and litigation communications practice. "It takes rehabilitation."

Mr. Paul said Ms. Deen has to demonstrate contrition to save her brand. "I'd have her reach out to a historically black college and have a historically black college professor [specializing in] anthropology or history take her through a scared-straight [educational] slave experience." He said that she needs to get to the point at which she's saying, "'These are not joking matters; I'm going to teach my family and teach my friends. I can now authentically say I get it.'"

"It can't be fake," he added.

The challenge, said Matthew Hiltzik, president-CEO of crisis shop Hiltzik Strategies, isn't so much holding onto current fans, many of which who are supporting her, but winning new ones -- specifically now that Ms. Deen now has fewer channels at her disposal. The crisis "will strongly impact her ability to reach a broader audience" in the future, he said. However, he said there's "reason for optimism" since "she has a loyal core base who understands her values and believes in her."

"Someone who has a long-term relationship with their audience has a greater shot at maintaining their loyalty," said Mr. Hiltzik. "That's probably the case here."

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