During the Watergate scandal, Richard Nixon’s Chief of Staff and co-conspirator H.R. Haldeman reportedly said, “Once the toothpaste is out of the tube it’s hard to get it back in!” and “You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.”
And so it goes with the self-proclaimed Queen of Butter, Paula Deen, who was well on her way to becoming one of American culture’s most instantly recognizable chefs until comments she made caused widespread indigestion.
In case you’ve been on Mars, the 66-year-old’s lucrative career has been crumbling faster than an overcooked crumb cake. The reason: It emerged that she almost breezily admitted having used the n-word in a deposition in a racial and sexual discrimination lawsuit brought by Lisa Jackson, who worked as a manager of the Savannah, Ga., restaurant owned by Deen and her brother. It wasn’t just her use of the word. The deposition indicated she didn’t see anything wrong with using it. She was carrying around stereotypical images of African-Americans and almost seemed nostalgic for slavery.
What followed next will be studied and written about by public relations experts for years. Deen had an interview for NBC’s “Today,” but didn’t show up for it. Fatal mistake: it gave the story as many legs as a centipede. She then offered a series of Internet video apologies, each one more awkward than the last. She finally appeared on “Today” in a tearful interview. The Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Eugene Robinson noted that Deen seemed to be painting herself as the victim.
“She has made her fortune in an America where most people, white as well as black, consider warm-and-fuzzy nostalgia for the days of slavery and Jim Crow to be highly offensive,” Robinson wrote. “I’ll put it in terms that someone who missed the last 50 years might understand: All black people are uppity now. Every one of us, I’m afraid. I hope she figures it out, because anyone that fond of the deep-fryer can’t be all bad. A period of silence would be a good start. My advice: Eat some hush puppies. And don’t talk with your mouth full.”
Although Deen is famous for urging heaps of butter in recipes, no amount of buttering up fans or corporations she offended will do much immediate good. Even though her cookbooks have sold millions, Ballentine Books, publisher of her next book, has dropped her new book from its fall release. She has also been axed by the Food Network, QVC, Smithfield Foods, Caesar’s Palace, Walmart, Novo Nordisk, Target, Home Depot, Kmart, Sears and Walgreens.
It’s a bandwagon effect where what she said and its context is now less important than her being perceived to have offended a large number of people who see her brand in a different way. So corporations linked to her now believe their brands will be negatively impacted if they’re officially associated with her. True, many fans and Americans who believe that uttering some unwise phrases shouldn’t wipe out a life’s work argue that she deserves a second chance. But the cold reality is that even if she regains some lost footing, her image and career are cooked.
Advice to celebrities: if faced with a big problem about something you said, apologize profusely and definitively. Make sure you or your representative responds to media requests. N-e-v-e-r stiff a booked live TV interview. Explain you aren’t perfect. And have a p.r. person express regret ad nauseum.
If not, don’t bother trying to put the toothpaste back into the tube because when the public sees your name it could be left with a bad taste in its mouth — and corporations associated with you could be running for mouthwash.
Joe Gandelman is a veteran journalist who wrote for newspapers overseas and in the United States.