Paula Deen is done, experts say
Will the celebrity chef be able to save her business empire? Probably not.
Paula Deen has served up her last dish on the Food Network.
The celebrity chef, 66, has been embroiled in scandal for a week after news broke that Deen admitted in a deposition that was part of a lawsuit that she had in the past used racial epithets and tolerated racial jokes in the workplace. And by Friday afternoon, the network announced that it would not renew her contract, which expires at the end of this month.
Deen thanked the network for 11 “great years.” She explained in a statement Saturday, “I have had the pleasure of being allowed into so many homes across the country and meeting people who have shared with me the most touching and personal stories. This would not have been possible without the Food Network.”
From restaurants in Savannah, Ga., to cookbooks, kitchenware, public appearances and endorsement deals, Deen has made herself a Southern cooking icon. The Food Network began airing Paula’s Home Cooking in 2002 and added Paula’s Best Dishes in 2008.
But will she find a way to win back disappointed fans after being involved in a racially charged, public controversy?
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“Paula Deen will survive but she will never be whole again,” says Howard Bragman, vice chairman of Reputation.com. “She will never make as much money, she will never have the respect that she once had, there are people that will never be in business with her again.”
The lawsuit was brought against Deen and her brother, Bubba Hiers, by Lisa Jackson, a former manager of the siblings’ restaurant, Uncle Bubba’s Seafood and Oyster House in Savannah, Ga. The lawsuit alleges sexual harassment and a work environment rife with racial slurs.
The network’s announcement on Friday came shortly after she posted three videos online apologizing for mistakes.
“I beg you,” says Deen in 46-second video apology that showed up on the Web. “I beg for your forgiveness.”
While some fans have remained loyal, including those standing in line this weekend outside her Savannah restaurant, The Lady and Sons, and others posting their support on social media sites and demanding she stay on television, the damage is done.
“Her brand is now tainted beyond recourse,” says Mark Pasetsky, CEO of public relations and marketing content firm Mark Allen & Co.
Deen will have to contend with the lasting effects for the rest of her life, says Bragman. “When her obituary is written, this will be a significant part of it,” he predicts.
But life, and business, will go on.
“She will have a viable business, she will have a lot of fans and make a lot of money,” he says, adding that “it’s never going to be the same.” Because when you’re a chef who’s also a TV personality, “the Food Network is where you want to be. It’s where she started and where you belong as a private chef.”
However, Bragman predicts that “when enough time passes, she will (have another show).”
Pasetsky isn’t so sure. “I’m not optimistic,” he says. “Her comments are highly offensive, and I don’t see another network getting behind her and supporting her and giving her a new show.”
Deen probably had no idea that what she was saying at the deposition was so offensive, Pasetsky says, attributing the public relations disaster to “someone who’s so famous and who cannot tell the difference between right and wrong.”
Going forward, Deen must make sure to take the necessary and appropriate steps to repair the damage done to her image. “She needs to make this lawsuit go away. Whatever it costs, she needs to make it go away. That’s No. 1,” says Bragman.
“No. 2, she quietly needs to be sitting with her advisers, coming up with a business strategy. I would be taking the Paula Deen empire and making it the Deen family empire. A smart way to salvage as much as you could out of the business.”
She also must acknowledge the mistake, says Bragman. And what of the apologies Deen has issued in recent days? “They’ve been horrible,” says Bragman. “They’re textbook bad. Too many of them, none of them were complete.”
Although Deen’s publicist cited exhaustion, the decision to skip a pre-arranged Today show interview with Matt Lauer Friday morning was “a terrible move,” says Pasetsky.
Evangelia Souris, president of Boston-based Optimum International Center for Image Management, agrees. “It only suggests that she was afraid to get into more trouble and doubted her ability to provide an authentic apology.”
And even though she bailed on Lauer, Bragman suggests she still needs to sit down for a big interview. “I think the public likes that. Were I advising her, I would either go to Oprah or Robin Roberts. I think she would be well advised to sit down with a respected African-American journalist. I think that it creates the perception of courage and going into the lion’s den, and that would serve her well.”
Souris explains: “She needs to do the public appearance apology and then lie low and out of the public eye for a while. Then when some time has gone by, she should start building her image strategically: Align herself with goodwill events, causes, etc. This would allow her to be seen in a positive way.”
QVC, which sells Paula Deen’s line of cookware, said in a statement to TMZ: “We are closely monitoring these events and we are reviewing our business relationship with Ms. Deen. In the meantime, we have no immediate plans to have her appear on QVC,
Soon after the first oddly edited apology video appeared Friday on YouTube, it seemed to have been pulled and a second Deen apology video appeared.
She talked in the second clip about how she was “physically not able” to appear on the Today show Friday morning and had pulled herself together and wanted to apologize. “My family and I are not the kind of people that the press is wanting to say we are. … Your color of your skin, your religion, your sexual preference does not matter to me. It’s what’s in the heart … and my family and I try to live by that. I’m here to say I’m so sorry. I was wrong. … I offer my sincere apology to those that I have hurt and I hope that you forgive me because this comes from the deepest part of my heart.”
In a third video posted later Friday, Deen apologized to Lauer for not appearing with him that morning after agreeing to an exclusive sit-down interview.
“It’s been one fumble after another,” Pasetsky says.
Contributing: Ann Oldenburg