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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