Paula Deen: Getting The Shaft or What She Deserves?

Why, you may ask, are we discussing Paula Deen's recent situation on Firehouse Zen? Well, we are discussing it because it is appropriate to leading and change management; because hers is a contemporary and widely understood case study; and because it follows up somewhat on my last posts, I'm Telling You, Don't Go There… and Stand Up Against The Bullies

While the Internet has so many redeeming qualities, the downside that you are all aware of is the lightning-fast way in which conflict can escalate, simply because of our ability to allow emotion to over-ride sensibility. We talk about it all the time on here because in my observation, it is one of the most pressing problems in society today.  This hypersensitivity to what is said or seen is reflected in our politics, our views on current issues, and in our interaction with others.

My usual disclaimer applies: I have seen both sides of the issue, therefore, I consider myself able to discuss it rationally.  I think that the platform of the Internet provides anonymity which is beneficial when you have a genuine fear of persecution and have something beneficial to say.  However, that anonymity is abused when used to advance attacks with no foundation, or out of context.  

This is no rant, it is an observation of the realities.  No matter what is said later, as has been expressed ad nauseam, the perception of what has been said will continue to follow you, especially in the age of the Internet.  As Dave Statter, Curt Varone, and other respected internet subject matter experts will tell you though, how you handle it can mean the difference between the future being smooth or the future being your path to irrelevance.  I seem to believe that while Ms. Deen's use of certain language was unfortunate, I don't know her or what is in her heart, so I have no basis in which to judge her.  I think that others should use the same criteria when deciding whether she is genuine or not.  But the idea that by watching her on TV equates to your ability to weigh in on whether is is or not is ridiculous, as it is an opinion based on what little bit you know of her.

Using a comparison with Martha Stewart's situation a number of years ago, while Stewart was widely popular, her brand was mainly associated with television, and when she spent some time in jail, it affected her brand's upward momentum.  This being said, her situation was not exacerbated by any other drama and while her brand may not hold the power it once had, she certainly isn't hurting.  Social media at that point was relatively limited and while I don't have figures available, I'd bet that social media saturation was probably below 50% of her demographic, if not substantially lower.  Regardless, what kind of engagement did people have with her then?  Other than watching her television show or buying (or not buying) her products, I would speculate we had little to no interaction with her.  And while I will admit to watching her show (hey, she had some pretty good ideas), I will also admit to being very disappointed with her, which is interesting when I reflect on it.  On what basis did I have any justification for being disappointed in her?  Based on what media tells me?  On the opinions of a few talking heads?

Conversely, Paula Deen's recent exposure to negative publicity is in a day where more than 71% of ALL WOMEN have a social media account.  This is pretty amazing when you realize I am looking at an extremely wide interpretation of her demographic, literally just "women", not even using age brackets.  When you break it down, it actually reveals that the only age bracket that saw an increase in social media usage happens to be her target demographic (30-49 year old women), which increased from 71% to 77% in 2012.  Therefore, when I said "lightning-fast" earlier, I wasn't kidding. Less than an hour into the "breaking news" that the Food Network let Deen go, there were 5,356 posts to the Food Network Facebook page in response.  What's more, they were reported by Huffington Post as being overwhelmingly in support of Paula Deen, which goes to show you that even in situations where something is perceived to be a negative, it really depends on your perspective.  I would suggest a lot of that has to do with your emotions toward the subject.  Again, while I can admit some bias in Paula Deen's favor, I would suggest that given my own very limited exposure to her through second-hand engagement, it has been shared with me that she is a very genuine and down-to-earth person.

Is that relationship because of her proximity to my area (she happens to live in the Savannah area)? Or because of my relationship to people who have first-hand knowledge of her personality? Or is it because she has a very wide level of engagement with her "followers"?  Regardless of all of that, she was pretty quick to own her situation and that may also benefit her in the long run.

In this comparison, I would speculate that Martha Stewart lost more support because of her perceived aloofness and where critics described her as elitist and cold.  Paula Deen is widely held as warm, supportive, and "down-home", which likely endears her to followers.  Social media plays into this because while conventional media fails to establish a "relationship" with viewers, social media, by its nature, is all about engagement and relationships.  If there is a quick lesson to be learned here it is that by establishing these relationships, it helps you in the event you do have some negative publicity come your way.  This is, however, a subject matter to discuss at a later time (note to self).

How does this figure into our discussion? Regardless of your stance on her transgressions, Martha Stewart's situation hit a high mark and never really rebounded with overwhelming public support.  While the jury is still literally out on the Paula Deen situation, from my observation, there is a certain amount of rhetoric going back and forth already in real-time, facilitated by this ability to speak emotionally rather than logically, with people saying what is on their minds without consideration for the facts.  In fact, what is very interesting to me is that the trial in which Deen is involved in isn't even about her, except by association; the person who has been implicated is her brother and she and everyone else in her sphere of influence is now exposed the controversy.

With the ability to make these comments, we have to realize that what we have is an extraordinary amount of power to influence and like I say repeatedly, we have to consider the affect those comments have on others.  I equate it to the concept of total war as expressed by Clausewitz: total war is engaged when all efforts at changing the ways of another (to your benefit, which may not be what is best for society) through negotiation are exhausted.  Therefore, when engaging another party in total war, we have to consider the outcomes are going to radically change everyone involved, not just the protagonists but the antagonists.  I suggest that it is the equivalent of total war because it is.  Once you put it on the Internet, it is indelible and it is wide-reaching.  You may be able to delete something from your "timeline", but that doesn't remove it from circulation, so one must seriously consider what is being said versus how that information will be translated into use, for or against your cause.

If we fail to appreciate the conflict from either side, not only do we miss out on an opportunity to understand others, but we do our own ideas injustice because we don't hold them up to the scrutiny of validating them.  Just because we say something doesn't make it right, and there have been a sufficient number of occasions in which I have said something, only to be shown later that another perspective was more accurate.  Had I taken more time to look the total equation over, I might have done a better job of defending my side or even better, seeing the forest and the trees.

I have a lot more to reflect upon using this scenario, but I wanted to take a time-out and start some discussion on the challenge.  What benefit do you see in the ability to just shoot out what you have to say without consideration for the effect it will have on others?  Does it feel good to just say what you want and then later be shown how insensitive or inconsiderate your approach was? (I find it embarrassing, personally).  But maybe you have a better perspective on it that I am not seeing, like a therapeutic value in just getting what is on your chest off it.  I don't know, it just seems to me that the wiser and more mature course of action, not that I employ it myself as often as I should, would be to step back and look at the entire situation before shooting off my mouth.

Please share your thoughts with me and the rest of the readers.  I think this is pretty pertinent stuff as it relates to conflict and might help us all to understand the phenomenon for what it is.  Thanks for reading.


  • DStatter says:


    From an image standpoint it is extremely difficult to recover from a racial incident. Especially one this clear. What made it worse was the slowness and the quality of the response. This is not a time when she should have waited around to see the reaction. And that video was horrendous. My impression from the video was woe is me, I am sorry that you found about this and I hope you will keep buying my food. The combination of the edits that made up a pieced together response and the language she used came off as very insincere. My guess is she isn’t listening to the PR pos (happens often) and is going with her own gut. The result is some middle, muddled ground that is making things worse.

    Martha Stewart’s crime wasn’t as personal to people. As I recall it was also handled better. She even asked to start her sentence early.


    • Thanks for the feedback on that, Dave. That’s why you are the expert!  I definitely see what you are saying when you point out the response and I definitely agree in regard to Martha Stewart’s crime being less personal.

      As this progresses I plan to study it more and discuss it.  As I mentioned, part of the issue I have is simply that when something goes wrong, I am amazed at the immediate formation of opinion regardless of the facts.  Like the Columbia Fire Department fire, people who don’t have any idea what was going on that night were immediately calling for blood, and while there are moments that I see a prima facie case of “this person is clearly guilty” of something, those moments are pretty rare and even then, there exists the potential for context.

      I think Paula is going to have a tough road to hoe on this situation, but that being said, the public is fickle anyway.  They may stick by her and they may not.  But regardless, we need to understand that your relationship with your “followers” will definitely add or subtract from the outcome.


      Thanks again!



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *