Why Won't an Apology Save Paula Deen?

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Following revelations that she had used racist language in the past, celebrity chef Paula Deen’s recent public apologies appear to be falling on deaf ears. Some of her most powerful business partners, including Wal-Mart, Smithfield Foods, Caesars Entertainment and the Food Network, have severed relations with the embattled Deen.

Whether she can rehabilitate her image and rebuild her brand remains to be seen, but experts agree her recent video apologies, as well as her June 26 interview with NBC’s Matt Lauer, were ill-conceived and poorly executed.

Whoever said you'll feel better once you apologize had it all wrong.
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“I don’t know if she’s getting dreadful advice or not taking the advice she’s getting,” said Lauren Bloom, author of “The Art of the Apology.”  “What you say reflects on your company and on your business associates. But no matter how many times she has apologized, once she gets energized, she starts talking about how unfair everybody is being to her. She is behaving as though she didn’t do anything all that bad, but the bottom line is you cannot use that word -- it is as hateful and vicious as any word can be.”

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Dean’s troubles began with news of a $1.2-million lawsuit filed by a former manager of one of her restaurants. In her deposition, Deen admitted that she has used racial slurs. Immediately following the revelation, the Food Network announced it would not renew her contract, ending an 11-year run. Deen also admitted she had considered planning a plantation-themed wedding with all-black male waiters.

If she made one glaring error during her apologies, according to experts, it was focusing too much on her feelings, and not enough on those that she may have hurt with her words.

“She needed to be repentant for the hurt she caused others,” said Jennifer Thomas, Ph.D, clinical psychologist and author of “When Sorry Isn’t Enough.” “She needed to disavow her old hurtful ways, but instead she said to Matt Lauer, ‘I is what I is and I’m not going to change.’ That sounded defensive instead of humble. Further, she should have been clearer in what she said, but instead she was emotionally distraught and repetitive.”

Whether Deen can recover her brand remains to be seen, but Thomas believes a critical step will be to “put her money where her mouth is and to be willing to offer some resources. I would suggest that she should find a charity that has to do with race education and really get behind it.”

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So far, Deen has not taken any concrete steps to assuage the bad feelings of those she may have insulted or hurt. However, it's been reported that she hired crisis manager Judy Smith, the inspiration for the current ABC show “Scandal,” and past advisor to high-profile clients, including Kobe Bryant and Michael Vick during their own public-relations disasters.

The experts agree that Deen needs to talk less and listen more. “She really needs to step out of the limelight for a while,” Bloom said. “If her advisors are smart they’ll have her sit down and think about what she has done and not say much for a while. She is a person who everybody wanted to love -- she’s a lovely, grandmotherly, sugary, open-hearted person and we just weren’t expecting this to be her.”

If the apologies are not working, perhaps some aggressive corporate changes might, according to Thomas. “Now it really does need to be about less talk and more action. Her sponsors are pulling out, but from what I hear, her books sales are spiking. I believe they need to pull her first name off the brand and re-brand it as the Deen Family. Her sons are being more easily received by the public now and their show is still on the air."

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