Paula Deen Fails Badly in a Crisis, While NE Pats Deftly Protect Brand

Katie Paine
Katie Paine

If you were ever seeking to characterize the defining element of a crisis in 2013, you need look no further than the two crises we tackle this week.

From both crises, we learned that the timing and nature of your response has as big, if not bigger, an effect on the length, severity and impact of a crisis than the actual severity of your transgression. One might argue that in today’s communications environment, it’s what you do and say in the first 48 hours that matter most, not what you did to cause the crisis.

First, there was the popular food writer and TV personality Paula Deen, whose offensive comments from two decades earlier surfaced as part of a lawsuit by a former employee.

Because Deen spent the first week after the comments were made public in communication lockdown, canceling interviews and saying nothing, the crisis developed momentum and within two weeks Deen had become about as appealing as nuclear waste.

Her sponsors abandoned her, and her TV show on the Food Network got the hook, never mind that Deen had become the go-to topic for both network and cable news outlets for days on end.

Shortly on the heels of Deen’s PR problems, New England Patriots football star Aaron Hernandez was taken into custody in connection with a murder investigation.

Within two hours of the arrest, the Patriots had released Hernandez and even offered refunds to anyone who had purchased a Hernandez jersey. Once the initial police investigations were over, the story quickly faded from the headlines.

On the one hand, you have offensive words used 20 years ago, and on the other hand, you have a potential murderer on your football team.

So why did the Patriots suffer far less damage than Paula Deen?

Because the Patriots never lost control of the story, and Deen did.

The speed with which the Patriots’ management acted to distance itself from its up-and-coming star was not just brilliant, but also indicative of how well senior managers understand today’s media environment.

The Pats’ crisis playbook is one that future PR classes should study for a long time to come.

The team expressed immediate regret for the family of the victim and followed up with dramatic action that said, in essence, “We’re not just saying we’re sorry, we’re going to show you how sorry we are: We’ll drop this guy that we had pinned our hopes on.” (In August 2012, the Pats signed Hernandez to a five-year, $40 million contract extension; after he was booked on murder charges, the Patriots voided all of Hernandez’s contract guarantees, according to several media reports.) The team reinforced that message by offering jersey refunds as a way to indicate that it knew that any hero worship of Hernandez had to be squashed immediately.

Fast, demonstrable regret enabled the Pats to own the story from the first hours of it breaking.

By contrast, Paula Deen let the story take over her brand and, eventually, destroy it. A week’s worth of silence in the social age might as well be a year in which brands don’t communicate with their audiences at all.

No amount of interviews with friendly journalists was going to overcome night after night of jokes by the Lettermans and Lenos of the world and all day speculation on the part of cable news.

Deen’s PR team committed a cardinal sin of communications: They let the media create the narrative and define Deen—in this case as a racist stuck in the antebellum era.

The lesson for both celebrities and sponsors alike is that you can no longer wait to carefully craft your response to bad news.

The faster you act, the less damage you will suffer. 


Katie Paine is CEO of Paine Publishing. She can be reached at


Criteria Grade Comments Advice
Extent of coverage B One of the amazing things about this story is how quickly it faded from the news. The fast response on the part of the team and the rapid apprehension of Hernandez limited coverage to little more than a week. And, while it will no doubt surface again when the trial begins, the connection and damage to the Patriots brand should be minimal. The severity of the crisis has much less impact on the extent of coverage than does the way in which the crisis is handled. If you deal with the news up front in a fast and forthright way—no matter how horrific the crime—the media sooner rather than later will begin to look around for something more salacious or intriguing to cover.
Effectiveness of spokespeople A Granted, the football team may have had more experience and certainly more precedent for dealing with media crises, but still, the Patriots front office was fast on its feet and clearly had a well-rehearsed crisis plan in place. There is a proven correlation between the presence of a well-rehearsed and up-to-date crisis plan and the degree to which an organization can get its messages across during a crisis. If nothing else, you should be inspired to rehearse yours as soon as you’re finished reading this column.
Communication of key messages A Despite the horrific nature of the accusations against Hernandez, and the obvious news value of the story, the Patriots were able to get the team’s messages out about its concern for the victim, and for children who might have hero-worshipped Hernandez. The public expects an apology in the presence of a crisis, but if you can go beyond the simple apology and take a surprising action, such as offering refunds to anyone who wants one, this will not only capture the news media’s attention, but will also go a long way towards repairing your relationships with your stakeholders.
Management of negative messages A While there was some linkage of the Hernandez affair with the generally violent and arrest-prone nature of professional football, that message did not linger. The lack of negative messages was due to the nature of Hernandez’s alleged crime, which does not fit the pattern. As a result, the negative messages did not get much traction. The key to drowning out the negative messages was the swift action. By taking the action to drop him from the team, there was no longer a linkage with the sports pages. If at all possible, try to move the focus out of your field or industry as soon as possible.
Impact on fans C While fans were initially shocked and revolted by Hernandez’s alleged actions, once he was no longer associated with the Patriots’ brand, the anger (and potential brand damage) moved away from the team. The focus of any crisis can quickly shift from an individual to a brand and back again. The key to successfully navigating a celebrity crisis is to keep the focus on the individual and away from your brand.
Overall score A- While the nature of the alleged crime makes this a major crisis, the speed and actions of the Patriots’ front office reduced its ramifications to relatively minor. In today’s crises, speed isn’t just “of the essence.” It is the essence. If you don’t get your messages out early and often, you won’t get them out at all.

New England Patriots

Criteria Grade Comments Advice
Extent of coverage F By hiding from the media, Deen pretty much guaranteed that cable news shows, radio talk shows and comedy hosts would have jokes at Deen’s expense for at least one week, with no mitigating comments to create any need for balance in the media coverage of the scandal. In today’s environment, silence only brings you more coverage and guarantees that the media will fill the silence with its own version of the story.
Effectiveness of spokespeople F Deen was her own worst enemy. Ducking the media meant there was no one to speak for her side at all, and her organization was never set up to present any other spokesperson who would be credible with the media. No matter what type of organization you have, in a crisis you will always need a trusted spokesperson. In most situations we would recommend that the person with the highest level authority be the designated spokesperson, but when you’re dealing with celebrities who are prone to saying or doing silly things, it is better to have a go-to person who is not a celebrity.
Communication of key messages F Deen’s week of silence ensured that it would be virtually impossible for her to get her own messages out when she actually did choose to tell her side of the story. By the time she decided to emerge, the story had been told and retold and there was no room for her messages. And, while she may have had a story to tell about her community involvement and good deeds, those message were drowned out by those coming from the litigants in the suit against her. Remember that a crisis will make the news regardless of whether your messages are incorporated into the story. The best hope you have to influence the tone or message content of the story is to respond quickly, transparently and credibly. Even if you have to tweak the messages later, at least your perspective is part of the coverage.
Management of negative messages F By ducking the media, Deen allowed the lawyers and litigants against her to get all their negative messages into the media and keep them there for at least a week. Again, you haven’t a prayer of silencing negative messages if you are silent yourself.
Impact on fans and sponsors C As soon as the depth and breadth of the media frenzy became apparent, Deen’s sponsors quickly realized the potential impact she could have on their brand and dropped her. Today’s sponsors listen very closely to both social and traditional media and watch what trends on Twitter. It won’t take much for a sponsor to quickly walk away from a toxic celebrity.
Overall score F There are a few crises that will be studied by PR students for decades to come. Deen’s picture is now up on the PR Hall of Shame, right next to the Susan G. Komen Foundation, BP and Massey Energy. Some people just can’t learn from others’ mistakes. For every crisis, there are probably a dozen PR execs knocking on wood saying “there but for the grace of God go I.” Most of us who have been in PR for a while have worked with or known someone who has worked with a celebrity (minor or major) who had the potential to turn into a Paula Deen-style disaster. Learn from her mistakes. Use the research that will no doubt be done on the topic to train your executives on how not to do PR when your brand is engulfed by a crisis.

This article appeared in the August 12 issue of PR News. Subscribe to PR News today to receive weekly comprehensive coverage of the most fundamental PR topics from visual storytelling to crisis management to media training.