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My thoughts on Paula Deen

July 2, 2013

How Paula Deen Sank Her Own Ship
A Lesson in Context and Crisis Management

Communication is essential to human interaction. Above all, context is key in understanding the intent of a statement. We all learn this very valuable lesson from time to time. Sometimes it gets waved off with an “I see what you mean now”, and other times, we sit in a little hole of poop that we’ve created for ourselves and the lesson is tougher.

 On shows I have worked on, I often try to hire people who have great add value to the project; and one gal named Mary I hired often. One day, over casual conversation, it came up that she was Mexican. I looked at her, shocked, and voiced my disbelief, and wondered how I hadn’t known that. She replied rather quickly, reminding me it was because I didn’t really notice these things or care about them at face value. It was true. It didn’t matter to me, but it was a surprising moment all the same. I thought to myself: Am I really that oblivious? Hmm.

Additionally, on that particular crew there were quite a few lesbians it turns out, and one evening they all ended up in my room for some post-work beers. The next day (the same day I learned of Mary’s origins), one of the girls made a joke about how my room had become the designated ‘Gay Bar’ for the production. Mary then looked to me and asked, “Why wasn’t I invited?”

Because I lack filter, and she had already taken me by surprise once that day, my mouth opened up and the shocked exclamation of, “You’re GAY?!” shot out, followed by, “AND Mexican?!”

Because clearly Gay Mexicans were few and far between in my mind at that moment and this was just too much information in one day to take in.

Everyone had a great laugh at my expense over that. We still do in fact. We’ll willingly agree I need to work on my lack of filter, but what I love most about that memory is that it reminds me that all I saw in Mary was her incredible work ethic and an awesome woman. I never gave a passing thought to her race, heritage or sexual orientation because it didn’t matter to me. It had nothing to do with her job performance or the kind of person she was. She added value to the team and that was all I did care about.

Despite my blunder, I now count her as not only a valued asset to my teams when I was working, but a friend and someone I admire.

Fast forward to now and to the surprise of no one, a celebrity has made an oopsie. Not a little oopsie, but a big oopsie.

Or was it? We’ll never truly know. When Paula Deen used the N word (yes, I’ll censor. It’s a vile word), we weren’t there and we will never know the context of its use. I don’t have an issue with it being said in and of itself; we all make mistakes. We also all make mistakes that are blown out of proportion.

If I was asked by HR about me calling Mary ‘gay’ and ‘Mexican’, I would absolutely say that I did. They’re blatant facts. The important matter here is context. They were not used in a derogatory manner, even though they very well could be.

Now I’m not saying that there is ever a factual or appropriate time to use such a vile and derogatory racial slur, but my main concern on this matter was the crisis management, or lack thereof. Where was her publicist? Her agent? Crisis manager? Asleep at the wheel, all of them. The entire catastrophe could have been prevented with a single released statement. Something like:

Ms. Deen, in a legal disposition, stated that she used an inappropriate word. She apologizes for this. This was in a greater context and due to the fact that this is an ongoing case, we and she cannot comment further.

Then, she should have simply shut her mouth. Of course there would have been the comments from the peanut gallery, but without anything else to go on, it would have ended.

But she didn’t shut her mouth, or make a statement. Instead, she kept speaking. She kept popping up in seemingly staged awkward attempts at apologies that were, quite frankly, difficult to watch.  And in one, she seemed to taunt people who voiced upset or frustration; in effect saying well are you perfect? If you are then you can strike me dead, otherwise leave me alone.

That is where I, too, became miffed at the situation.

On a human level, I was upset with Ms. Deen herself. Her apologies seemed insincere, scripted, and trite. I felt she not only continued to offend people by using a racial slur, but then went on to offend people in her defense of using it with statements like “I is what I is”. Really? REALLY?

As a business owner with a brand of my own, I was also frustrated with her, and for her. That she had the hubris to think that her brand, which was tied to her name, could withstand this showed that she negated the severity of it all. I felt compassion for all of the people about to lose their jobs as the Paula Deen label tanked. I was disgusted that no one was taking control of the situation.

I believe in action. I think that in her actions, Paula Deen and her brand can recover from this super-flub; but I mean real action. Not staged donations and high end, big ticket events to benefit the black community. I want to see a true re-birth of her and her brand. That is what I’m waiting for now.

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