Was Paula Deen’s Announcement in Bad Taste?

Earlier this week, Paula Deen announced that she has been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. The “Queen of Southern Cuisine” also shared that she is a paid spokesperson for a pharmaceutical company and promoting a diabetes treatment that she has been using since diagnosis. Since her disclosure, many fans – and detractors – have condemned Paula because of her decision to withhold her diagnosis for nearly three years. It leads me to question, was Paula’s wait to so publicly announce her diagnosis politically savvy, or has it ultimately harmed her brand more than can be recovered?

From a PR perspective, I understand why she’s received harsh criticism about her late disclosure: she wasn’t being transparent, she remained silent for too long, she fed one theory about health and food on her TV show that didn’t fit her new diabetic lifestyle, etc. It’s clear that many of Paula’s fans feel deceived because of the delay. With this in mind, I might have encouraged Paula to announce the information soon after she received her diagnosis and developed a strategic campaign to help increase awareness about the disease, educate her fans about the dietary effects and provide recipes that are healthier to display “diabetes in a new light.”

At the same token, it’s difficult for me, as a devoted fan, not to consider why the criticism might be a bit overwhelming. Should she really be obligated to tell everyone her health status? Could the delay really be considered as a disservice to her fans? If she were to begin cooking healthier foods, would she be able to retain the attention of her initial audience? Would she have received less criticism if she did divulge sooner? My answer to all of the above (my opinion, of course) is a resounding No!

Star Jones stated on the Today Show a few days ago, “Everyone has the right to reserve their own health information for when they’re ready to handle it.” Jones goes on to disagree with Paula’s profit from the announcement, but isn’t that what celebrities do and isn’t that how they make additional income?

Despite the delay, lack of transparency and bad timing regarding the coinciding endorsement announcement, here are some things that I think she and her team did correctly:

  • Paula was the informant: We heard about her three year battle with the diagnosis and about the endorsement deal from her mouth, which is important. Whenever breaking news occurs, it’s always best to hear it from the top.
  • She addressed the situation in the public eye: Paula could’ve easily hid from the criticism and hoped for the “Anthony Bourdains” to eventually stop talking. Paula immediately appeared on the Today Show and The Chew to discuss the situation at hand.
  • She wrote a letter to her fans: It’s not an apology, but it is a sincere and authentic approach.
  • She’s promoting lighter meals for better health: Paula and her sons teamed up with Novo Nordisk to help diabetes patients better manage their health. Furthermore, those who may not support her high fat, high sugar meals, they can also visit the page.

You might be able to tell that I’m a huge fan of Paula’s, and although I want her to promote healthy lifestyles, I would hate to see her completely ditch the brand that she’s best known for. If Cookerly were charged with handling Paula’s PR, I highly doubt our team would have advised her to take the route that she did. As one of the top PR firms in Atlanta, we know firsthand that disclosure and transparency are paramount in a crisis campaign. While she has taken excellent steps to mend fan disappointment, initial transparency and an issues management strategy may have helped Paula avert this potential crisis. Moving forward, it will be interesting to see how Paula and her team will handle this news.

4 Responses to “Was Paula Deen’s Announcement in Bad Taste?”

  1. I fall on the critical end of respondents–Alton Brown and Anthony Bourdain are among my kitchen heroes–but despite the initial misstep, Paula did do some things right when she, personally, made the announcement. I am sure she will survive this crisis *because* she was so quick to respond and to do so honestly and authentically. No doubt her brand will suffer a blow, but not nearly as large if she hadn’t made the announcement herself.

  2. Nancy Bistritz says:

    Very interesting read, Brittney. As a former journalist, I think the Paula Deen debate falls under the area of public official vs. public figure. While I certainly agree with everything you’ve written, I would consider her a public figure, and I’m not sure public figures are required (or even obligated) to disclose personal health situations. If she were a public official, I’d hold her to a different standard, but given how I’d classify her, I’m not sure we should hold her to the same standards we hold people like mayors, presidents, and other elected officials. All of that said, I certainly do think her behavior (promoting buttery, fat-filled, calorie stocked meals) definitely conflicts with what she should have been promoting for the past three years.

  3. After a week of debate, Brittney, you win! Though she could have revealed her health issue earlier, it is a private matter. I also agree with your point about Paula being the informant having a huge impact on her fan’s perceptions of the audience.

    Another positive for Paula, as she noted in her interview on the Today Show, is that her show is designed “‘for your entertainment’, and that she has never instructed anyone to go eat her food every day.” A salient point some of the “Anthony Bourdains” of the world should note.

  4. Brittney great blog and truly a hot topic of interest. Paula is a public figure and considering that many viewer’s were influenced by her ways of preparing “delicious dishes from her kitchen” I cant help but believe transparency is important. Quickly to condemn indeed have many. However I think that if many considered that Paula the shock when the message was delivered and the shock instantly realizing the impact of her credibility being judged of her lavishing promotion heavily cooking with butter and how her cooking has impacted of her own health, many would lighten up the criticism and support Paula for coming forth. She is an entertainer and may lose a certain audience due to disappointing news however her influence will draw new audience since diabetes is a serious health issue and many will be encouraged to eat better and live a healthier way of life.

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