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Critical Thinking

Leadership Lessons from the Paula Deen Controversy

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I told myself not to get involved in the whole Paula Deen mess. I said to myself, “It’s a train wreck. She’s radioactive. Let it go and just walk away.”

In the end, I couldn’t. There’s just too much insight into the dark side of business, the power of the media, and the shadier aspects of corporate decision-making to be gained here. 

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More importantly, what happened to Paula Deen can happen to almost any business owner in this day and age. So many lessons to be learned it isn’t funny. Mostly, they’re eye-opening lessons on how executives and business leaders should not behave.

Lesson 1: Family and business don’t mix

The deposition that spawned this entire controversy started with a discrimination lawsuit filed by an employee at one of Deen’s restaurants. It’s run by her brother, Bubba Hiers. If even some of the testimony I read is true, it certainly seems as if Bubba is seriously confused about what is and isn’t appropriate at a place of business.

Maybe every family has a Bubba. But here’s the thing. You don’t have to do business with yours. If I’ve said it once I’ve said it a thousand times, keep your family and your business lives separate. Family-run businesses have a ridiculously high rate of dysfunctionality. I seriously hope I don’t need to explain why that is.

Deen could have avoided this entire sordid mess if she’d followed this simple lesson.

Lesson 2: Don’t mess around with depositions

Everyone in business should experience a deposition to learn what can happen if you don’t know how to keep your big mouth shut.

Depositions are designed to wear you down so you eventually say one thing you never intended to say that sounds incriminating and helps opposing counsel make their case. And let me tell you, the media didn’t invent the power of the sound bite. The lawyers did.

If opposing counsel can get you to blurt out one little phrase they can use in court, it’s worth eight hours of grueling Q & A. Sometimes they really hit the jackpot by getting you to open a Pandora’s Box of goodies. That’s exactly what happened during Deen’s testimony, and more than once. Here’s one such incident:

Q. So was Lisa ever present when you discussed with Brandon what kind of wedding you’d like to have?

A. I don’t recall that. I recall – I do recall [a whole paragraph of nonsense] …

And I remember telling them about a restaurant that my husband and I had recently visited … [more nonsense] … The whole entire wait staff was middle-aged black men, and they had on beautiful white jackets with a black bow tie. I mean, it was really impressive.

And I remember saying I would love to have servers like that, I said, but I would be afraid somebody would misinterpret.

And that opened the door for pages and pages of testimony where Deen just dug herself a deeper and deeper grave. What’s sad is it never had to happen. Had she just said, “I don’t recall that” and stopped there, half this controversy would never have come to light. But she didn’t. And here we are.

Lesson 3: Be upfront and transparent

Remember how fast the Food Network dumped Deen? As soon as the media got hold of those controversial sound bites from the deposition, the network dropped her like a hot plate of buttery grits. Come to find out that Deen’s ratings had been on the decline for two years and the negotiations to extend her contract were not going particularly well.

I don’t know about you but, to me, it looks like the Food Network, which is majority owned by Scripps Networks Interactive, took advantage of the scandal to dump Deen. The problem with that is they’re now facing a lot of angry fans who think they overreacted and threw Deen under the bus.

In reality, it appears to have been a pretty well calculated business decision. Personally, I think it serves executives and business leaders well to be upfront and transparent. I think it would have been smart in this case.

Lesson 4: Don’t capitalize on people’s misery

It’s embarrassing how many branding experts, PR pundits, and crisis management gurus came out of the woodwork to offer sage, sanctimonious advice on how Deen should have handled things. How her sponsors had no choice but to drop her because of the social media uproar over her so-called racist comments which they themselves would never condone in a million years, goodness no.

Here’s the thing. If your competitor is on the ropes, by all means, capitalize on the opportunity. As soon as Men’s Warehouse chairman and founder George Zimmer was fired, Jos. A. Bank began a barrage of prime time ads. That’s smart.

When a company like Tylenol, Exxon, Perrier, BP, or Toyota has a brand meltdown, you should absolutely go for it and give your expert opinion on cable or network news.

But how desperate do you have to be to try to capitalize on the misery of an individual – a courageous individual who started with $200 in her pocket and built a respectable business empire – just to drum up some business or attention?

Ironically, if you really had PR and branding chops, you would know that, if a public train wreck were your opportunity to shine, it just makes you an ambulance chaser. And that’s not good for your brand.

Lesson 5: Don’t base business decisions solely on Tweets

It’s become abundantly clear in recent years that social media is a force to be reckoned with. That said, executives should not base business decisions solely on an uproar on Facebook. It’s a data point. No more, no less. It may not even be a majority opinion or the sentiment of your particular target audience or demographic.

Of course, nobody can afford to associate with an embarrassing train wreck. But you’d think executives at Smithfield Foods, Wal-Mart, Caesars Entertainment, Home Depot, and Novo Nordisk would consider the totality of the situation before making the decision to drop Paula Deen.

Personally, I think they were a little too Twitter trigger happy.

Bottom line: Did Paula Deen screw up? Yes, she did. Royally. But that has more to do with her lack of business and legal acumen, and having been thrust into the celebrity spotlight relatively recently, than anything else. I’m sure she’ll come back. Hopefully, with a lot more humility about business and lawsuits and a lot less butter and sugar.

What do you think?

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