Paula Deen's Credibility Crisis Is Our Credibility Crisis

Better Timing by the Team in Charge of the Brand Could Have Headed off Charges of Cynicism

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Paula Deen, TV personality and doyenne of deep-fried desserts, came out of the diabetes closet, announcing she was diagnosed with the Type 2 form of the disease three years ago.

So why is it fodder for a marketing mag? Because her illness is not just bad news for Deen, it's unfortunate for our industry as well.

Deen the person has a disease, but Deen the brand is suffering too. That's largely fueled by the announcement, done concurrently with her revealing her illness, that Deen has inked a deal to promote diabetes medication.

Paula Deen
Paula Deen
The irony has not been lost on the public. That's bad for those of us in the business of helping build such brands, personal or otherwise.

It's the kind of thing that gives our industry a black eye -- the reputation that we'll do anything, sell anything for money. That at best we operate in a gray area and at worst our ethical compass isn't well-calibrated. That our most marked characteristic is not creativity but cynicism.

Having spent the past three years cheerleading for the consumption of what surely is a diet unfriendly to diabetics -- Twinkie Pie, Gooey Butter Cake, Deep Fried Cheescake -- Deen will now presume to tell us how to treat and avoid the disease.

Don't get me wrong. I've got no problem whatsoever with Deen's decadent style of cooking. I will eat just about anything that comes out of a pot of boiling fat.

And I don't object to her speaking out about diabetes or even getting paid for it. Yeah, the twinge of hypocrisy rankles a bit. But it's the PR choices she is making -- colossal missteps, in my opinion -- that bother me and cast a pall on her and the image business.

Bad timing
The biggest dents in her credibility are due to timing. Just being smarter, more patient in this area could have saved her a lot of trouble.

First, there's her claim that she waited nearly three years after her diagnosis before going public because her "knowledge about the disease was limited." That's a story with some big stretch marks. She could have completed a medical residency in diabetes in that amount of time. If she was that uninformed, then her doctors are worse than her publicists.

Deen goes on to say that she decided to tell people "in God's time." That's a particularly cynical dodge. As if Deen didn't really have a say in the matter.

Since she made her announcement at the same time as revealing her endorsement deal, I guess God's messenger came in the form of someone from diabetes drugmaker Novo Nordisk bearing a lucrative contract. Mysterious ways, indeed.

I'm usually not a fan of celebrity endorsements of any kind, but there are many that are genuine and effective. Situations like this though, that smack too much of blatant opportunism, run the risk of eroding the confidence of spokespeople for any brand.

It wasn't just the timing of the announcement that bothered me. It was also her cavalier attitude about it. Here's what she had to say:

"Talking about money is garish. It's tacky. But, of course, I'm being compensated for my time. That's the way our world works." Really, Paula, that 's how it works? Would Christopher Reeve have agreed with you? Would Michael J. Fox? She's being compensated because she chose to. That's the way the world works. To imply that it was out of her hands is insulting.

Criticism of Deen has been swift (and so has support). One of Deen's first responses has been to pledge an unspecified portion of her Novo Nordisk earnings to the American Diabetes Association. A fine gesture to be sure, but even that comes off as a knee-jerk reaction to the negative press.

She didn't get here on her own; there have been plenty of people helping create the Deen brand. And they did her wrong this week. Deen just wasn't prepared, and in the PR business at least, that 's a cardinal sin.

She should have started by doing something as simple as putting some distance between the diagnosis revelation and revealing the Novo Nordisk partnership.

Deen and her team have had three years to anticipate public and media response to the announcements, to figure out how to position that vis a vis her endorsement arrangement and to generally map a strategy for what amounts to a re-branding. Instead they just dropped the meat in the dirt.

Eric Webber leads the PR & Social Media practice at McGarrah Jessee, an Austin, Texas, ad agency known for its creative and strategic work across all of the disciplines of marketing communications.
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