The Paula Deen Case – A Lesson in PR Transparency

Last week, Paula Deen – the Southern Belle cook with the penchant for deep fried delights – announced that she has Type 2 diabetes. Although a tragic medical condition for anyone, what’s unusual about this case is that she waited three years after her initial diagnosis to reveal that she was inflicted with the disease, which is often associated with a diet high in fat, very similar to the recipes and decadent culinary delights that she is known for. What’s even more curious about this situation is the synchronized announcement following Deen’s diabetes revelation that she has also signed a deal to promote a diabetes medication. An article last week in AdAge about this story adroitly pointed out that:

“It’s the kind of thing that gives our industry (marketing/PR) a black eye – the reputation that we’ll do anything, sell anything for money. That at best we operate in a gray area and at worst our ethical compass isn’t well-calibrated. That our most marked characteristic is not creativity but cynicism.”

Whether or not you are a Deen fan and enjoy her style of cooking, you can’t help but feel that this whole story smacks of hypocrisy. After her initial diagnosis, Deen continued to actively promote her high fat diet and only disclosed her condition only when it benefitted her in representing the drug company (Novo Nordisk) who manufacturers the diabetes drug she is promoting. To say that the timing of this sequence of events is troubling would be the equivalent of saying that the Penn State sexual harassment PR gaffe couldn’t have been avoided (rest in peace Joe Pa). In an age where consumers increasingly demand a high level of brand transparency as a condition of their loyalty, how could something like this happen?

A carefully orchestrated strategy from Deen’s team of PR and marketing professionals, the case clearly illustrates distorted brand perception problems that lack of transparency can cause. As the AdAge article points out, Deen’s attitude about the ordeal seemed to be questionable in its haughty demeanor, citing divine influence as her excuse for stretching out the timeframe from diagnosis to revelation. Really? You decided to delay the announcement because you felt that God wanted you to wait not because the news could have had a detrimental effect on your brand perception? I wonder. The continued fallout from Deen’s announcement is palpable across the Internet, many outraged and shocked at the apparent lack of ethics as Deen went on touting her belt expanding diet fully aware that she was suffering from a disease known to be caused (in most cases) by the exact recipes she was selling.

The PR profession has an inherent obligation to practice honesty and transparency in everything we do. The Deen case illustrates just how critical it is in a day and age when consumers are smarter, more informed, better networked and have increasingly acute brand perception skills to be honest and transparent with any news regardless of whether it has a negative effect. One can even argue that consumers are much more willing to forgive and remain loyal when a brand immediately admits a mistake, misstep or unforeseen circumstance instead of attempting a cover up, or in the Deen case, delay a revelation and purposefully or selfishly manipulate brand perception strictly for personal gain. I think that the impropriety in this case isn’t in the message, but the execution of the plan.

What are your thoughts? Was this a blatant lack of transparency and can the Deen brand recover?

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  • I’m struck by your questioning Deen’s brand reputation yet sidestepping NovoNordisk’s brand reputation entirely. Deen has made a really good living based on her unashamed love and promotion for decadent, fattening food choices. I have no issue with her cooking, lifestyle or job choices. In fact, she’s proactively and with forethought promoted these choices and I truly respect her right with which to make them. What’s stupefying for me is the pharmaceutical company who prides itself on transparency, patient advocacy, healthy lifestyle and a “the ambition to ultimately defeat diabetes is at the core of the company’s vision” (direct lift from their corporate vision

    In this case, NovoNordisk’s decision to enact the poor communications strategy of “do what I say, not what I do” is the greater insult than anything Deen did or threat she might incur.

    • Thanks for the comment Marian. This post was focused on the Deen brand image, and not Novo Nordisk which arguably played a big role in the events that unfolded and in my opinion, would need another post all together focusing on this issue. Regardless of Novo Nordisk’s actions, the Deen brand made a conscious choice to take this course of action and was in no way forced to reveal their affiliation with the drug manufacturer until it was financially advantageous for them to do so. And let’s face it, the pharma industry doesn’t exactly have as squeaky clean of an image as Deen did.

      I don’t disrespect Deen or her choices to promote the diet that she professes. What bothers me (and many others) is the active promotion of a dietary lifestyle that is conducive to the exact disease that she suffers from and not revealing her condition because it would have hurt her sales and reputation. That in and of itself is what this post is about. This is a free country and anyone is welcome to promote what they believe in and advocate their own lifestyle choices. But let’s not be coy about the Deen case. If you make a choice to promote a diet that is proven to be unhealthy and in some cases, lead to or fuel the conditions for a disease like diabetes, don’t you have a moral obligation to tell your followers and community the  consequences of what you are promoting? 

      • I wrote a blog similar to this (although yours is much more PR centered) and the entire reason that this story appalled me was because I’ve always been taught it’s morally ethical to be open and honest in PR. Fact of the matter is that Paula Deen was not open and honest with her fans and followers. To promote such a diet and recipes that Paual herself couldn’t even eat in those three years seems morally reprehensible to me. 

        • My point EXACTLY Brittani. This is about a lack of transparency by the Deen brand to reveal a disease that could of potentially been damaging or even ruined their name and instead manipulating it to their financial advantage by coinciding the news of the illness with an endorsement to promote a diabetic drug and who knows what other spin. 

          Thanks for the comment.

  • Meg McAllister

    I have to wonder if there’s more here that we’ve yet to see. On the surface, this does not seem so much a backlash regarding transparency, as it is an utter lack of sympathy to the spokesperson (Deen), and whether that lack of sympathy will render the spokesperson ineffective. I should state — in the interest of transparency — that I have been involved in more than my fair share of pharma launches using celebrity spokespeople. Normally when a celeb comes forward to “share” that they suffer from any kind of chronic ailment it serves to motivate the public to become aware, and if they suffer from the same illness, do something proactive about their condition. The celebrity chosen is usually credited with putting a face to the problem/issue that the public can identify and empathize with; obviously this was not the case for Paula Deen. Rather she was immediately the target of negative backlash because of the potential (probable) role her excesses in terms of food preparation played in contracting the illness in the first place. I have to wonder WHY NovoNordisk’s marketing team didn’t consider this possible reaction when they chose Deen to represent the product. Admittedly, sometimes when companies like mine match public figures with products/causes we’re spoiled for choice, and other times we’re beating the bushes trying to find a suitable (and willing) candidate.
    The only reasonable theory I can surmize is that Deen, her production company, her publisher, and NovoNordisk had other plans for this campaign. Perhaps Deen is scheduled to do a 180 degree turn and start cooking healthy. For instance, a new tv show and/or cookbook that offers people healthier alternatives without sacrificing flavor. If that was the case, the timing and execution of this campaign sorely lacked, as did the strategy of the marketing team.
    As for criticizing Deen for only revealing her illness when there was money to be made from it, it’s somewhat hypocritical to single her out when virtually no celebrity is ever giving away their time to a product or cause without getting paid for it, particularly where product promotion is concerned. If Deen had been a more suitable choice, or the campaign developed and rolled out better, this would not be an issue at all.

    • I agree about the backlash on Deen being likely misdirected. Having done my fair share of pharma-celebrity pairings, one of the key components of a perfect match — aside from the obvious need for relevance — is the ability for patients to self identify with the patient and their challenges/struggles with their condition. In this case, Deen epitomizes (leaving out the possibility of something more that could be revealed as Meg offers) the self-destructive mindset of too many people with type II diabetes who do not make the necessary changes to their diet and lifestyle to counter the horrific underpinnings of diabetes.

      I do not have a problem with Deen’s holding private her diagnosis until now.  In the case of celebrity spokespeople, information is valuable and protecting it makes sense. 

      It’s the pairing that leaves me perplexed. How the company thought she would be the right face for their new drug is just questionable.

      • Meg McAllister

        Marian – Exactly, well put! Despite the scenario I laid out, Deen was NEVER the right woman for this job. She actually epitomizes a stereotype that most would chafe at rather than identify with. Diabetes runs in my family, so I can tell you first hand that, while often a poor diet is a root causes to the disease, there are numerous people who live seemingly healthy lives that are struck with the disease. So Paula Deen is not the role model/image that most would want to be associated with.

    • Thanks for taking the time to weigh in on this topic Meg. I am particularly happy to hear from yourself and Marian who have experience in the pharmaceutical industry and can offer inside knowledge. 

      I too hope that this series of events is a setup for Deen moving to another, more healthier diet line. Didn’t mean to make this post hypocritical towards Deen, just singled her out because its recent news and a proven fact that she waited for three years to tell the world about her condition while still promoting her unhealthy food recipes and cooking style.

      Again, thanks for commenting and for the insight and feedback!

  • Brittney

    John, I agree that Deen team’s lack of transparency is what has caused many people to be disappointed in the brand, in addition to hypocrisy. Although I am confident that her PR team could have launched a more strategic, timely marketing plan, I do think that there are some things that Paula did do right. I wrote a blog post about this as well that explores some pros to the tactics that she and her team implemented to make her diabetes/endorsement announcement.  

  • Kim

    I have visited Deen’s restaurant in Savannah and my husband is currently employed by Scripps Network… home of HGTV, Cooking Channel, Food Network…etc. As a PR professional I agree their timing couldn’t have been more off but at the same time now is Deen’s opportunity to go in a new direction. Does anyone find it odd that one of her “boys” now has his own cooking show called “Not My Momma’s Cooking” … where he basically takes her recipes but delivers them in a more health conscience way?!? I think that the “black-eye” of this whole situation isn’t that she continued to promote her recipes on her show, after all that’s how she became so big in the food industry. The so called “black-eye” is more that immediately after announcing her diabetes, Deen went on to mention her role as the spokesperson for that particular drug company. It almost implies that had she not been asked to represent them that her diabetes would still be a big secret.  

    • Good observations Kim. I just recently heard about her son’s show and all of this is finally starting to make sense. Deen is probably passing the torch (or in this case chef’s hat) to her son and in doing so, decided to delay the revelation of her diabetes so that her son’s show, which focuses on more healthier lifestyles would benefit. How slick. It still doesn’t take away from Deen’s lack of transparency but it does shed more light on a strategy.

      I agree that the most suspicious circumstance was the endorsement deal with Novo Nordisk that I briefly mentioned in the post. It does indeed imply that she may have never revealed her illness but we will never know for sure.

      Thanks for stopping by to comment!

  • Meg McAllister

    An interesting footnote to our discussion, Deen’s PR rep has resigned.  Question is…is she the innocent, the instigator, or the scapegoat of this debacle?

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