Social Justice: A Paula Deen Recipe For Disaster

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The Food Network found itself directly in the crosshairs of a social media firestorm this week after they announced that they would not be renewing Paula Deen’s contract at the end of this month.

For those of you not familiar with the TV Chef, she’s been a mainstay on the Food Network since 2002 and is largely credited with its success, especially in its early years.

Here’s the story of how a Network and one of its biggest stars came to part ways.

What the Paula Deen Controversy is About

Paula Deen is being sued by Lisa Jackson, a former manager at the restaurant she owns with her brother, Uncle Bubba’s Seafood & Oyster House, in Savannah, Georgia. Jackson is suing the TV Chef for racial discrimination and sexual harassment.

The 149 page transcript of Paula Deen’s deposition that took place May 17th is the origin for outrage for many critics of the Chef.

We apologize for the length of this post, but in order to understand the rage, the backlash against The Food Network, and FN’s handling of the situation, reading certain parts of the transcript are essential; here are the most salient quotes: 

Deen is Questioned on Her Use of Racial Slurs

Attorney:  Okay. Have you ever used the N-word yourself?

Deen: Yes, of course.

Attorney: Okay. In what context?

Deen:  Well, it was probably when a black man burst into the bank that I was working at and put a gun to my head.

Attorney: Okay. And what did you say?

Deen: Well, I don’t remember, but the gun was dancing all around my temple.

Attorney: Okay.

Deen: I didn’t — I didn’t feel real favorable towards him.

Attorney: Okay. Well, did you use the N-word to him as he pointed a gun in your head at your face?

Deen: Absolutely not.

Attorney: Well, then, when did you use it?

Deen: Probably in telling my husband.

Attorney: Okay. Have you used it since then?

Deen: I’m sure I have, but it’s been a very long time.

Attorney: Can you remember the context in which you have used the N-word?

Deen: No.

Attorney: Had it occurred with sufficient frequency that you cannot recall all of the various context in which you’ve used it?

Deen: No, no.

Attorney: Well, then, tell me the other context in which you’ve used the N-word?

Deen: I don’t know, maybe in repeating something that was said to me.

Attorney: Like a joke?

Deen: No, probably a conversation between blacks. I don’t — I don’t know.

Attorney: Okay.

Deen: But that’s just not a word that we use as time has gone on. Things have changed since the ’60s in the south. And my children and my brother object to that word being used in any cruel or mean behavior.

Deen on Using Racial Slurs as Part of a Joke

Deen, in answering questions by the deposing attorney:

 We hear a lot of things in the kitchen. Things that they — that black people will say to each other. If we are relaying something that was said, a problem that we’re discussing, that’s not said in a mean way.

…Most — most jokes are about Jewish people, rednecks, black folks. Most jokes target — I don’t know. I didn’t make up the joke, I don’t know. I can’t — I don’t know.

They usually target, though, a group. Gays or straights, black, redneck, you know, I just don’t know — I just don’t know what to say. I can’t, myself, determine what offends another person.

More questions and answers:

Attorney: And they told jokes using the N-word?

Deen: I’m sure they have. My husband is constantly telling me jokes.

Deen: Barry Weiner will ruin a funny joke. You know, some people can tell jokes in a funny way and some can’t.

Attorney: Okay. Your style of joke generally has some sexual component to it; is that fair?

Deen: Yeah, lots of times.

Deen’s Vision of a Plantation Wedding

Food Network Controversy

Deen: …I remember us talking about the meal. And I remember telling them about a restaurant that my husband and I had recently visited. And I’m wanting to think it was in Tennessee or North Carolina or somewhere, and it was so impressive. The whole entire wait staff was middle-aged black men, and they had on beautiful white jackets with a black bow tie. I mean, it was really impressive. And I remember saying I would love to have servers like that, I said, but I would be afraid somebody would misinterpret.

At this point the deposing attorney questions Deen in more detail about her vision for the plantation wedding:

Attorney:  And when you described it to Miss Jackson, did you mention the race of – well, you had to have mentioned the race of the servers –

Deen: Of course I would –

Deen: —because that’s the part that –

Deen: —because that’s what we just experienced.

When asked by the attorney if she could have staged a plantation wedding without all-African American waiters her response was:

Well, that’s what made it.

After an objection by her attorney, Deen continued:

Deen: That’s what made it so impressive. These were professional. I’m not talking about somebody that’s been a waiter for two weeks. I’m talking about these were professional middle-aged men, that probably made a very, very good living –

Attorney: Okay.

Deen: at this restaurant. They were trained. The – it – it was the whole picture, the setting of the restaurant, the servers, their professionalism.

Attorney: Is there any reason you couldn’t have found middle-aged professional servers who were of different races?

[Objection.]

Deen: Listen, it was not important enough to me to even fight, to reproduce what that restaurant had. I was just simply expressing an experience that my husband and I had, and I was so impressed.

When asked about the time in America she was referring to Deen responds:

Well, I don’t know. After the Civil War, during the Civil War, before the Civil War.

When the transcript of the deposition became public, outrage was swift in coming.

The First Wave of Social Outrage

I have read parts of this transcript repeatedly. Race is still a hot button issue in America, and it was no surprise that Twitter quickly exploded with condemnation.

#Paula Deen, #PaulasBestDishes, and all sorts of attempts at jokes turning on faux Deen recipes were trending. A few horrid examples include #Massa-Roni and Cheese and #Key Lynch Pie.

The mainstream media, not as quick as the social press, eventually jumped on the story and Deen was showcased on National and Local news channels.  Stories produced by both social and traditional media were being shared all over Facebook.

Deen’s Fans Go Crazy

Paula Deen’s critics let The Food Network have it, blowing the FN Facebook Page up with threat upon threat to leave the network forever.

Scrolling through the comments you will not find most people blatantly defending racism; the gist of their support appears to be that they believe Deen used the N word in the 60’s, although in her own deposition she designates the 80’s as the date of the bank robbery where she admits to using the word.

The Food Network’s Comments by Others section is overwhelmingly Pro Deen with comments that appear to show support based on the perception that what Deen said was ‘many years ago,’ that the comments are attributable to her Southern upbringing, and that the TV Star has apologized and should be forgiven.

Here are a couple posts representative of that outlook:

Really, Food network? Paula Deen is born and bred in the South, that’s what she was raised hearing and until she became of age, didn’t know there was anything wrong with it. Hopefully, she did not raise her children or contribute to her grandchildren’s thought that this is the right thing. What do you expect from an old Southern woman? No reason to fire her now, she didn’t say the N-word on her show? I don’t like Paula Deen personally, but I think that firing her for past mistakes is a bit excessive. And to those of you who say you will never watch Food Network again… you know you will! I hope the idiot that fired an old woman for something done 30 years ago never has to respond to everything they did 40 years in the past.

There is little engagement on the Posts by Others, but a considerable amount of it in the comment section under FN’s recipe posts. 

Interestingly, many of the “conversations” between fans in that comment section show a much more polarized view of the Food Network’s action. And it there, in the comment section where Facebook users are discussing the issue, that I think we get to the heart of why this is such a big deal.

Paula Deen Backlash

The Most Awkward Conversation

I realize that I am stepping into a very sensitive area here, but underlying the difference between supporters and critics of Deen and her deposition it the difficulty for us, as in America, to discuss Race and Racism.

In the comments flowing beneath The Food Networks standard recipe posts the varying perceptions of what Deen’s deposition are obvious, along with commentary on life in America.

Here are a few of the exchanges:

I have never seen such BS. I know someone whom works with a lot of black men everyday. They use the N word all day long with each other. One guy even asked them why? My point is if a black person is going to scream racism and claim the word is so offensive then the should not use it themselves. Do I use the word, no but if you put a gun in my face I will use the N word along with MF, SOB and many more that I didn’t realize I knew. If you use the word yourselves then don’t cry when someone else does. Food Network should have supported Paula !! My mother had the TV on that channel today and I made her change it. I will not support them but will follow Paula where ever see goes !!

Let’s go one more….I have pretty much stopped watching Food Network for another reason that will insight some verbal retribution….I do not agree with the Gay lifestyle and I am sick of all the gays and lesbians on your network as well. So maybe it’s a good thing Paul Dean is leaving…she and her boys can find a better home where they will be appreciated and not have to work around a bunch of homos.

It isn’t just the “n” word. It is the fact that she wants to have a dinner party with only black servants dressed in white to look like slaves. That was the worst comment she made and it demonstrates abject racism. Do you people not get that?

Saying a word is not racist. No word is racist. The definition of racist is a person in power who uses that power to discriminate based on RACE…..merely mentioning a word is not racist. The problem here is that Ms. Deen called a black robber that she came into contact with the N word. I’m pretty sure in that instance she was pretending to be a rapper…..

Thugs like to demean themselves every chance they get, and with the money and power they have in the Rap Industry, their racism is pretty blatant….so is Quentin Tarantino’s and Jamie Foxx’s utter racism: powerful people with the ability to affect change and hold powerful positions, demeaning entire races of people in movies, sounds pretty racist to me.

What makes it OK for a black comedian or rapper to utter that “N” word repeatedly in their performance or to call a woman a “HO” or the “B” word? Some African American’s don’t get all bent out of shape about that. WHY???? Seriously, just because you say those words doesn’t make you a racist. A racist is a Black Panther or a Kl Klux Klan member – people who hate an entire race for their color. Being a racist is a form of discrimination and discrimination is wrong. But, I’ve been discriminated against MANY times in my life for begin a woman, being white, for being overweight – why don’t I get to complain and call people bigots? I could, but I choose not to because I’m better than that! Everyone needs to stop being so sensitive and take people one at a time; basing your impression of them

Paula Deen deserved to lose her job because she violated a policy. I am certain that the network has a antidiscrimination/harassment policy. If you do this at work you will lose your job and so would I. She can get another job. She has to suffer the consequences like any other old joe at work. She offended many people. Seems that the only people that aren’t offended are white.

The Food Network Plays it Cool

In other Social Justice Posts we have cautioned against brands reacting to a backlash and making PR matters worse for themselves.

In many cases we advocate for a strong, clear statement of apology or clarification, and some engagement on social networks with the irate complainers.  What The Food Network chose to do was right out of The American Apparel Handbook, but even more quietly…. They have kept their communications to the food network responsebare minimum.

Initially, their spokesperson Julie Halpin released a statement:

The Food Network does not tolerate any form of discrimination and is a strong proponent of diversity and inclusion. We will continue to monitor the situation.

Then on Friday, as the storm stirring around Deen continued to swell, The Food Network made another very succinct announcement:

Food Network will not renew Paula Deen’s contract when it expires at the end of this month.

The statement came only minutes after the celebrity chef had released an emotional You Tube video apologizing for, “the hurt that I’ve done”, but never specifying what that hurt was.

The video, now removed from You Tube, was released the day that Deen failed to show for a Matt Lauer interview that had promised to be candid and open.

There are hundreds if not  thousands of posts in support of Deen and admonishing the network on their Facebook Page – but the last post that the network put up as of Saturday afternoon was a casserole recipe from Friday.

They haven’t tweeted since Friday; the network has gone social silent.

Is The Food Network in Trouble?

As we’ve outlined, FN has very vocal supporters and detractors, but how will this pan out?

One Facebook Page, We Support Paula Dean,  soared to 124K fans within 24 hours of going up, and as of Sunday morning is up to 215,000 followers.  Another page, Bring Paula Back, is growing more slowly but has 25K followers.

Critics of the celebrity chef started a  Change.org petition requesting that Deen be taken OFF the network that didn’t gain much steam, possibly because the network acted so quickly to announce their intentions.  The only pro Deen petition I could find  has only 126 signatures as of this writing.

When comparing the these pages and petition numbers against The Food Network’s 3.6 million Facebook followers and 1.7 million Twitter followers they don’t look so daunting.

Any of us who have watched these social maelstroms in the past know that they often blow over quickly.  There have been cases, some we’ve outlined in this series, where brands have been forced to change business processes.

We will wait and see; perhaps the critics will impact the advertisers and hit FN where it hurts: in  advertising revenue.

Looking at the network’s demographics it’s tough to tell. Here are some specifics about their viewership:

Media age: 45.2

College Educated: 39%

Median Income: $67K

Unfortunately, those statistics don’t tell us a lot about the viewership’s interpretation of the Paula Deen controversy, and we will all have to wait and see.  For all we know FN could experience a peak in viewership much like Chik-Fil-A saw sales skyrocket as supporters turned out in reaction to that corporation’s critics.

Our Assessment of The Food Network’s Handling

The Food Network was in a very clear No Win Situation, and they obviously felt like they had to act and not wait out Deen’s contract.

Could they have employed a team of Social Media PR pros to engage with the critics on their page?  Yes, but the risks in doing so are astronomical.

Entering into a conversation that is fueled with passion on both sides of the ‘debate’ about what is racist and what isn’t, what Deen said when, and what she meant by it is a lose-lose position for FN to place themselves in.

Why go dark?  I am sure some Social Pros would advise against shutting down all communications, and there will be those who argue that FN should have not allowed the controversy to stop their normal social communications; in many situations I would agree.

However, one glance at the conversation that is occurring beneath the posts they made at the end of the week again shows that even a routine recipe  inflames more outrage.

The Food Network did not use racial slurs or make inappropriate jokes.  The Food Network didn’t criticize Paula Deen personally.  The Food Network didn’t even fire Paula Deen. What it did was announce that it would not renew her contract at the end of this month.

Very often we advocate that our clients get out in front of the story, but getting ‘in front’ of a runaway train is not possible.

In the midst of this wave of outrage and anger it may seem that FN is making a mistake, but as time goes by and a new Social Media Firestorm erupts, this one too will very likely be forgotten.

Staying cool and not fanning the flames will very likely turn out to be the wisest of decisions.

UPDATE:  As of 06/24/13 Smithfield Foods has dropped Paula Deen, and their Facebook Page, although small, is blowing up with complaints.  We will be monitoring the social backlash, which is very much pro Paula Deen on both The Food Network and Smithfield Food’s Facebook Pages, although neither has seen a decline in followers.  Sales, in the end, are what each company will be measuring most closely.

VP of Content & Strategy at ArCompany. She has an extensive background in Sales, and focuses on generational marketing and content. With Hessie Jones she founded ArCompany’s Millnnnial, GenX and Boomer Think Tanks and writes and speaks on those topics from an insights/strategy perspective.