Four Reasons Paula Deen’s Video Apology Failed

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on June 21, 2013 – 3:33 PM

Paula Deen, the Food Network’s southern-cooking celebrity chef, found herself in hot water (or, more appropriate to her style of cooking, a vat of butter and lard) this week after The National Enquirer released details of racist remarks she’s made in the past.

The Enquirer’s source material—which has since been confirmed by numerous other outlets—is a deposition Deen gave last month in a workplace discrimination suit. In the transcript, Ms. Deen admitted using the N-word in the past and making racist jokes.

But the most shocking moment may have come when she admitted that she wanted to emulate a wedding she had recently attended in which the wait staff was made up of  “middle-aged black men.” That wedding, she said, evoked fond feelings for her of a Civil War-era “really southern plantation wedding.”

Ms. Deen was scheduled to appear on The Today Show in an exclusive interview this morning, but canceled at the last minute, citing exhaustion. She released this video apology minutes ago; you’ll find my analysis below.

This is one of the worst video apologies I can ever remember seeing. Here are at least four reasons it failed:

1. The Format

This apology runs only 44 seconds but is heavily edited. There is no reason she shouldn’t have been able to deliver such a short message in a single, straight-to-camera, monologue. Remember, folks: She’s an experienced television broadcaster. The edits and slapdash quality of this video only served to undercut the sincerity of her message. 

2. The Vagueness

Although Ms. Deen apologized for her “hurtful language,” she didn’t even begin to address the biggest problem — the thoughts behind that language. She needed to address the substance of the charges and make clear that she truly gets why her words were so hurtful before moving on to the apology. She didn’t. As a result, this video underscored the fact that she still doesn’t get it. 

3. The Lack of Speed 

Ms. Deen waited two days before personally responding to these charges. In a statement yesterday, her representatives didn’t help by seemingly excusing her behavior by mentioning her southern upbringing — and her Today Show cancellation gave the impression of someone in duck-and-cover mode. Given the slowness of her response, she heightened the expectation for a quality video that tackled these issues head on. This did not come even close to that standard.

4. The Begging

I am willing to accept at face value that this incident has humbled her. But her begging came across as rather pathetic and reminded me of televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, who tearfully proclaimed “I have sinned!” after getting caught with a prostitute.

UPDATE: June 21, 2013, 4:20 p.m.: Paula Deen has now released another video.

I’m not sure whether the first one leaked out inadvertently or not. This video is better than the one above (which isn’t saying much) but still lacks focus and polish, and does not accomplish what she needed to. Plus, her claim that the media distorted her comments (which are allegedly on tape) in some way seems to blame others instead of taking full responsibility. 

UPDATE, June 21, 2013, 4:45 p.m.: She’s out.

According to multiple sources, Paula Deen’s contract with The Food Network will not be renewed when it expires next month.

UPDATE, June 26, 2013, 8:30 p.m.: My interview with WTOP-FM about Paula Deen’s Today Show appearance.

Click here to listen. 

 What do you think of Deen’s apology? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Comments (20)

  1. By Mike McGill:

    It’s Oprah time! (Oh wait, she can’t do that…) Katie?

  2. By Chris Syme:

    I agree with you Brad, but I can’t help but feel sorry for her. If she had a decent publicist, this might have turned out totally different. Sometimes I can’t understand how some of these PR people get work. What are the qualifications? It’s sad that people need help apologizing correctly, but they do. And when you have bad help, well, you’re just in a pickle (to use an awful food metaphor).

  3. By Brad Phillips:

    Chris,

    Thanks very much for your comment. For the first time in three years, I disagree with you — so today’s a noteworthy day! :)

    I don’t feel sorry for her. She’s a powerful woman in a position of responsibility with management duties, and she has an obligation to act accordingly. I found her comments (and more, the sentiments behind them) disgusting. At some point, PR people can’t rescue people from themselves. If she acts badly, perhaps it’s okay to see her recede into the background. (Remember – she’s being sued not for racist thoughts, but for actual workplace discrimination, although I should make clear that she hasn’t been found guilty.)

    As a media trainer, I’d gladly work with a woman fighting for her reputation because she said something reckless. But if those comments reflected her true feelings over a sustained period of time, I’d probably turn her down. I don’t want to spend my career rehabilitating people with backward ideas about the world – or helping them pretend that they’ve rehabilitated themselves just to hang onto their prestigious careers.

    Those are my thoughts. I guess I feel strongly on this one. Please feel free to offer a response!

    Thanks again, Chris.

    Brad

    P.S. I didn’t answer your central point, about the ineptitude of her PR team. Judged by today’s performance, she issued a lousy response. Without knowing the details of how much control she allowed her PR team, I’m reluctant to lay the blame fully on them (but it’s hard to see how they don’t share at least some responsibility).

  4. By Art Aiello:

    I think her real failure here was issuing a videotaped comment in the first place. The first version shows her, as you pointed out, unable to string an apology together in under a minute without the need for a video editor. The second version looks like she borrowed someone’s camcorder and did a spur of the moment recording. Both made her come off as unprofessional and disingenuous. I agree with you that a woman with professional broadcasting experience should be expected to provide a more polished delivery. She really missed the boat, though, by pulling the plug on her interview. Nobody is going to believe her exhaustion excuse. Why did she suffer from exhaustion now? Given what you mentioned about her wedding comments and her predilection for painting herself as a Blanche Devereaux-esque Southern belle, she probably thought she could convince folks that she had “the vapors” or was “in a swoon.” I think that in this case she did some real harm to her reputation not through her racist comments but through her fumbling the ball afterward.

  5. By Ml:

    2nd video, her hands are clinched liken to fist mode; and I hear you she didn’t offer any insight nor means of redemption ; additionally she hit every possible target for discriminative behavior; she looks scared; she should had Olivia Pope helping her (:)

  6. By Pat Carlson:

    I agree that using “the n-word” is wrong. (BTW, if you want to hear the special word, just find a group of young black men.) I agree her apologies were poor.

    My problem is with the Food Network dropping her. (Yes, it has the legal right to do so. No, I don’t think it should be prohibited from doing so.) She isn’t on tv to preach racial harmony, or diversity, or sensitivity training. She cooks food! I don’t have cable, so I’ve never seen her show, but apparently she has a following.

    If her racial views – past and present – are that important to being a tv cook, then why wasn’t she vetted beforehand.

    Dr. Oz is a Muslim. He is also considered to be a very good heart surgeon. There are many more examples one could cite.

    I think Paula Deen made a mistake apologizing the way she did. I wonder if she had just said, “Yes, I did say some stupid things in the past.” and left it at that would have been better. Her apology seems to confirm the worst thoughts about her comments.

    Love your site, Brad.

  7. By Chris Syme:

    Brad-
    I’m glad you took the time to disagree. I think disagreement is an invitation to discuss and learn, and I would much rather defer to your experience than my hasty opinion. Hopefully it will be another three years before it happens again.

    I do agree with you. I also found her comments and behavior disgusting and ignorant. I guess I assume that her publicist has some control over the method of responses (2 videos) and that’s why I made the comment about the publicist. I also know that sometimes people will just do what they want to do regardless of what the PR person says. I think your most important statement was that knowing what you knew about her over time, you would probably turn down working with her. I felt the same way about the NRA deal, but then that is me. I do however, feel sorry for her and for anyone that is so dismissive of cultural values that they would throw away their career due to ignorance. That, to me, is sad.

  8. By Brad Phillips:

    Chris,

    Thanks for your gracious response, as usual, and I’m glad you don’t hold my disagreement against me!

    From a purely tactical standpoint, you’re right. This seemed to me to be a survivable crisis, and I’m surprised The Food Network cut ties with her so quickly. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was more going on behind the scenes. Perhaps there was lingering concern over the ethical controversy she generated last year by only revealing her diabetes diagnosis after she signed a lucrative endorsement deal for a diabetes drug; her medical condition was relevant, as she advocated a particularly high-fat brand of cooking.

    Thanks for reading, and hope to see you back on the blog here soon!

    Brad

  9. By Brad Phillips:

    Hi Pat,

    Thank you for your comment and for your nice words about the blog! I’m glad you enjoy it and that you’re a part of this community.

    First, we agree that Ms. Deen’s apology was lousy. She wasn’t well served in this crisis; nor did she call the right shots herself.

    Like you, I’m also surprised that The Food Network dumped her so quickly. She hosted three shows for them – and she certainly seems to have built a considerable following. I suspect we’ll learn more about her firing in the days to come – and I wouldn’t be surprised if there was more to this story. (The handling of her diabetes announcement last year earned her a lot of deservedly negative press in my view. Perhaps The Food Network was still miffed about that incident?)

    I disagree on a couple of points. First, I don’t think “racist” and “Muslim” is a fair analogy. “Racist” and “anti-Semite” would be more comparable. Second, I do believe that character matters. The Food Network isn’t selling food – they’re selling personalities; once someone’s personal brand becomes severely tarnished, it threatens their audience. That said, I agree with you that the Food Network’s quick firing seemed a bit hasty…unless there’s more that we don’t know about yet.

    Thanks again for reading and commenting!

    Be well,
    Brad

  10. By Brad Phillips:

    Art,

    Thanks for the laugh – your comment is spot on.

    Plus, you’re the first person to ever leave a “Golden Girls” allusion on the blog. I wish I could award you some kind of prize for that… :)

    Be well,
    Brad

  11. By Pat Carlson:

    Thank you for your thoughts, Brad. I want to clarify my earlier remarks. I was not comparing “racist” with “Muslim.” (I can see why you may have thought that.) In my attempt to be brief, I was ambiguous.

    My point is that all of these television personalities may have (or may have had) one or more personal beliefs that is racist, bigoted, strange, unusual, politically extreme, irrational, or otherwise outside the mainstream. Most people don’t care about those beliefs, unless they point to marked hypocrisy.

    Most people could not care less that Ms. Deen has used the n-word, whether they are fans of her or not. (Many people did care about the diabetes flap because they believed it is hypocritical to promote high fat foods when you yourself don’t eat them because you have diabetes and you don’t disclose that fact.)

    Most people who watch Dr. Oz don’t care that he’s a Muslim and most his detractors don’t care either. His show isn’t about religion.

    David Letterman has survived telling rape “jokes” about teenagers, having sex with subordinates whom he could have fired, etc. If it were revealed that he believed in alien abduction, would any of his fans care? Would anyone else, besides the UFO crowd, care? Would his rating drop one iota? I don’t think so.

    If it were revealed that a major dramatic actor thought it immoral for women to be tattooed, sure, it’d sell a few tabloids, but no one would care!

    Penn Jillete has expressed doubt about man-made global warming. Some folks are really bent out of shape about it; but most people couldn’t care less. Even if they disagree about the issue, they don’t look at Jillete any differently. He’s a stage performer, not a scientist, teacher, or weatherman.

    If all tv cooks, reality stars, game show hosts, etc. must never have used offensive language or ever had offensive thoughts, whether they have changed or not, then I suspect the talent pool for those jobs will be slim.

  12. By Brad Phillips:

    Hi Pat,

    Thanks for your reply. I do understand where you’re coming from and think you make a valid point. There has to be a line between what is and isn’t a fireable offense, and the question comes down to where one draws the line.

    I’m not certain that Ms. Deen should have been fired for this incident alone. (I do wish she would have issued a much stronger statement; her deposition revealed some real ugliness and a rather flip attitude toward a dark period in America’s history.) As you suggested, I think the diabetes controversy was also a big deal – she hid her disease until she could profit from it. The David Letterman incident is comparable, in that both he and Paula Deen were accused of an abuse of power. Of course, he handled it in a forthright manner, while she delivered a ham-handed response.

    I regularly think of Bill Maher in these cases, fired from ABC’s Politically Incorrect for saying shortly after 9/11 that the hijackers weren’t cowards (but that Americans were for using long-range missiles). Although many people were viscerally offended by his remarks, I still defend his right to say them. But in the end, Paula Deen represented The Food Network, David Letterman represented CBS, and Bill Maher represented ABC. If a company feels that an employee’s views are inconsistent with their brands, they have every right to terminate the contract.

    There’s an easy way for public figures to avoid these situations in the future: stop saying ugly things. It’s amazing to me that so many celebrities and public figures ignore that lesson.

    Thanks again, Pat. I really do appreciate your contribution to the blog.

    Best,
    Brad

  13. By Janet Newcomb:

    I think you’re missing the point….which is: why do these egomaniacs suck up so much air time. The Food Network was once innovative. now it has succumbed to the capitalist mind set that we want money, not culture..

    I live in Southern California and now all day Saturday and Sunday, 24 hours, they air Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. It’s obviously revered by a segment of society, but does it contribute anything to our culture?

    The FOOD NETWORK needs to go away. … CUPCAKES??? Really? We worship cupcakes? Well, most Americans are obese and diabetic nowadays, so this is our culture at its best/worst.

  14. By Brad Phillips:

    Janet –

    And don’t forget all of the “cooking competition” shows. It may make a few viewers want to become chefs, but it does little to teach the average person how to cook.

    Of course, you have Honey Boo Boo on The “Learning” Channel. So I guess we really shouldn’t expect much better.

    All of that said, I personally think Giada and Alton Brown do a nice job. Nice to have some food science on the channel occasionally.

    Thanks for writing!
    Brad

  15. By Gem:

    Wow, Pat are you suggesting being a Muslim is “racist, bigoted, strange, unusual, politically extreme, irrational, or otherwise outside the mainstream”? Racism is WRONG, being Muslim is not.

    I understand the point you make about her comments not being relevant to her ability to do the job – and living in the UK this case is new to me – but I find your way of making it nearly as offensive as the racism Paula is accused of. Your two comments certainly suggest to me that you consider Islam to be bad and/or Muslims to be wrong. Outside of a few nutters who don’t truly understand the religion (and all religions have them) it is neither of these things.

    Brad, as always I found your comments very interesting and continue to learn better ways of doing things through reading your blog.

  16. By Kathy Bertone:

    I am going to cut against the grain (sorry!) and say that I think her second video would have been very effective had she stopped half way through. I get it. We all make mistakes. Of course no one likes racists, but if these comments were made years ago and if she is truly sincere and speaking from her heart (as it appears she is) perhaps the humane thing to do is let her apologize and move on. With that said, I don’t know how many instances the offending word was used, but it seems to me that she has repented for mistakes made. Also, I don’t think she is as “slick” and sophisticated as other celebrities, who would be spinning this so much better, no doubt. Just another thought. Have a great day, everyone!

  17. By angela:

    Well I think her PR team is way more effective than being given credit for. She has somehow gotten the media to focus on one inconsequential aspect of the entire case and gotten the part of the world that doesn’t read to think this whole thing is about saying the N word 20 years ago. That is masterful because the truth is so much worse.

    I personally believe her PR team has no control over her so I don’t blame them at all. She should have settled the lawsuit and she better hope the rest of the world stays ignorant to the far more damaging things that her brother has admitted to and that she as the owner allowed tolerated to go on for years.

  18. By Rich Klein:

    Brad – Excellent points as always and invigorating discussion among many here. Reports out today that Deen retained Judy Smith (“Scandal” ). As I just tweeted: Deen needs to get OUT of public eye for at least six months. At same time, she should get herself into “rehab” to learn about the dangers of stereotyping. After that period of self-discovery, she could then use her celebrity to educate kids, others about the dangers of bigotry. Then, MAYBE a year from now, she can SLOWLY re-emerge to deal with what will likely be devastating business losses. She’s the fourth highest paid celebrity chef in the world so she can afford to just work on herself for a year. It’s her only hope of restoring trust over the long term.

  19. By Brad Phillips:

    Rich,

    Thanks for your comment. She needs to stay out of the limelight for a while, I agree, especially because her public appearances are too distraught to be effective. She’s only making the crisis worse, which is evidenced by the number of her sponsors that are continuing to flee.

    If all goes well with her rehab, perhaps she’ll be ready to run for mayor of New York City in two years. :)

    Be well,
    Brad

  20. By Deb:

    I get tired of PR people getting blamed for their high powered employer’s PR failures. People who get to the CEO’s or star’s level of influence didn’t get there by being sheep. They make their own decisions. In my experience, a good PR person gives his/her best advice to their employer–giving pros and cons–but at the end of the day, the boss makes the decision. PR people are often left make the best out of a terrible situation because their boss made a poor decision.

    And to whoever asked ‘aren’t there any qualifications’ for the field, yes, yes there are. They include education and training (usually a college degree) that includes communications theory, journalism, video production, statistical analysis (measurement), and communications and strategic planning. As with EVERY profession, there are some less skilled PR people who sometimes do stupid things; that should not taint an entire profession. So can we all stop blaming PR people for all the ills of their employers? Thanks.

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