Current Weather
The Spy FM

PR Experts On How To Prove You’re Not A Racist

Filed by KOSU News in US News.
June 29, 2013

The empire of Paula Deen is crumbling.

Sears and Walgreens are among the latest companies cutting business ties with the celebrity chef, and Ballantine Books has announced that it would no longer publish her cookbooks.

Deen came under fire after admitting during a court deposition to using the N-word.

How can a public figure recover from a race-related, public relations disaster?

I sought out expert advice in Washington, D.C., where the cycle of scandal and redemption is an industry all its own.

Aiding The ‘Drowning Victim’

First up is Dan Hill, president of the D.C. communications firm Ervin/Hill Strategy. He’s also a crisis manager who a public figure like Paula Deen might hire to help find her way out of a scandal. (Ad Age reported that according to “an executive familiar with the matter,” Deen has brought on crisis manager Judy Smith, the real-life inspiration for the ABC series Scandal. Smith declined to comment to Ad Age.)

Besides corporations, Hill mainly works with three types of individual clients.

“I work with the wrongly accused … people who know they made a mistake and want to fix it, and others that see a mistake on the horizon that might become public and want to make sure they handle it the right way,” he explains.

But Hill says most clients who first come for his aid fall into one big category — the drowning victim, panicked and flailing for help. Often his first advice to them is to breathe, literally.

“We’ve all experienced the anxiety of making a mistake,” he says. “Few of us have felt having that mistake broadcast to hundreds of millions of people and how that makes you feel.”

Paula Deen seemed to be drowning in her own tears by the end of her appearance on NBC’s Today show, her first public interview after controversy erupted over her using the N-word.

Hill says there’s no silver bullet to fix Deen’s situation.

“I think I’m one of the best in my field. I can’t help her get out of this in a week,” he says. “This is the kind of thing that will maybe take years, decades for her to overcome.”

The timing for recovery from a race-related controversy is especially tricky because, Hill explains, “it has to do with your character, your values, and your belief systems.”

Becoming The Next Comeback

Eric Dezenhall, CEO of Dezenhall Resources, has been managing crises for three decades. He also co-wrote the book Damage Control: Why Everything You Know About Crisis Management is Wrong.

But even this veteran crisis manager admits race-related cases are “notoriously difficult to get out of.” He says the problem with race-related controversies is history — hundreds of years of history in which feelings are so deep that apologies and other conventional tactics often don’t work.

“Parsing the allegation and trying to twist yourself into pretzels is not going to be your vindication,” warns Dezenhall, adding clients accused of saying something racist should not expect to encounter nuance in the court of public opinion.

But you shouldn’t be defeatist either, says crisis manager Michael Frisby, president of Frisby & Associates.

“A percentage of people are going to question the authenticity of everything that you do. You’re under a microscope,” Frisby says.

Still, he would advise clients tackling race-related scandals to take steps to build relationships with the communities they offended.

“You need to meet with them. You need to talk with them,” he says. “You basically need to get their forgiveness.”

Winning over entire communities may be an unreasonable expectation, Frisby notes.

But with time, genuine self-reflection, and support from high-profile community leaders, the tide of negative public opinion may eventually begin to turn.

Frisby says sometimes there are silver linings for scandals in America.

After all, who doesn’t like a really good comeback story? [Copyright 2013 NPR]

Leave a Reply

9PM to 5AM The Spy

The Spy

An eclectic mix of the Spy's library of more than 10,000 songs curated by Ferris O'Brien.

Listen Live Now!

5AM to 9AM Morning Edition

Morning Edition

For more than two decades, NPR's Morning Edition has prepared listeners for the day ahead with two hours of up-to-the-minute news, background analysis, commentary, and coverage of arts and sports.

View the program guide!

9AM to 10AM The Takeaway

The Takeaway

A fresh alternative in morning news, "The Takeaway" provides a breadth and depth of world, national and regional news coverage that is unprecedented in public media.

View the program guide!

Upcoming Events in your area (Submit your event today!)

Streaming audio and podcasts

Stream KOSU on your smartphone

Phone Streaming

SmartPhone listening options on this page are intended for many iPhones, Blackberries, etc. with low-cost software applications available to listen to our full-time web streams, both News on KOSU-1 and Classical on KOSU-2.

Learn more about our complete range of streaming services

We're perfecting the patient experience - Stillwater Medical Center