A good brand is a promise kept. In an age where brands speak directly to their customers, transparency, authenticity, and honesty are essential. Nothing could have underscored this more clearly than the recent major missteps by two brands.
First to fall was Paula Deen. It hasn’t been a good couple of weeks for the culinary mogul from the South. In fact, it’s fair to say she’s found herself in one of the biggest public image meltdowns since Lance Armstrong’s recent dosing demise.
For those who haven’t kept up, here’s what happened: A former manager at Deen's restaurants in Savannah, Georgia, is suing her and her brother for sexual and racial harassment. Deen admitted to using racial slurs against black employees, and later posted two fumbling apology videos online.
The ugly elephant in the room, of course, is that Deen's hurtful and racist comments represent her personally held attitudes and beliefs. Her actions were inexcusable and warranted an apology. Many apologies. But let's take a look at what she actually said and, just as importantly, how she said it.
Here’s a version of one of the videos that can still be found on YouTube:
What’s wrong with this apology? In my view, simply everything. It’s overly scripted and edited, and yet still appears to be about her, not the impact of what she’s done. Her vague and emotionally distant language is devoid of heartfelt remorse or reflection.
And it appears I wasn’t alone in my reaction: Americans weren’t buying it, either. Soon parodies sprouted up online, and Paula’s own sponsors abandoned her. The Food Network dropped her show; Ballantine Books cancelled her upcoming cookbook (it was due in October); and Walmart, Target, Home Depot, QVC, and Novo Nordisk weren’t far behind in severing ties with her. Within one week her butter cookie had crumbled.
By contrast, let’s look at an apology done right. At nearly the same time as the Paula Deen blunder, Kickstarter found itself in its own compromising situation. A blog post skyrocketed on reddit, talking about a Kickstarter to fund a misogynistic, potentially violent guide to seducing women. Kickstarter identified it only two hours before the project funding window closed and failed to shut it down in time. It did, however, respond swiftly in words and actions.
They acknowledged they made a mistake and immediately enacted policies to prohibit similar kinds of content. Here’s an excerpt from their blog response (still prominently posted at the time of this publication), addressed to “Everybody” and entitled “We Were Wrong:”
“...Today Kickstarter will donate $25,000 to an anti-sexual violence organization called RAINN. It’s an excellent organization that combats exactly the sort of problems our inaction may have encouraged.
We take our role as Kickstarter’s stewards very seriously. Kickstarter is one of the friendliest, most supportive places on the web and we’re committed to keeping it that way. We’re sorry for getting this so wrong.”
Today this post has more than 1,000 comments (overwhelmingly supportive and appreciative of this response), and 33,000 Facebook likes (compare this to their blog post the previous week, which had 5).
After this fallout, Ken Hoinsky, author of the offending project Above the Game, has offered to rewrite the book to ensure it’s free of sexually offensive language under the guidance and insight of DoSomething.org. Hoinsky wrote, “My name may have been martyred in the press, but I will be using this opportunity for good.”
Well done, Kickstarter. You have my support.
So, what can we take away from this?
1. An apology must be sincere. A message that is overly scripted, edited, and read from a teleprompter does not resonate with audiences. The most powerful apologies are written from the heart, not with publicists and legal teams in mind.
2. Back up your words. Kickstarter’s donation to RAINN doesn’t solve the problem, but it shows that they take it seriously and want to help those who may have been hurt or offended by their carelessness. When it comes to demonstrating integrity, actions do speak louder than words.
3. Use this as an opportunity for growth and improvement. This is particularly essential when a personal brand is at stake (like Paula Deen). Accepting responsibility and revealing real learning from a mistake ultimately makes it easier for the public to forgive you. People love a comeback when it feels earned. We’re all human, after all.
4. Social media is a powerful way to talk directly to your supporters, but it’s critical to get it right. Make sure you’re familiar with the various platforms and know how to use them in times of crisis. If you don’t, get an expert to help ensure you’re connecting with your audience with the right message, at the right time.
So where does Deen go from here? She could take a page from John Galliano's book. Like Deen, the fashion designer was the darling of his industry until he was caught on tape verbally abusing a stranger in a racist, drunken, anti-semitic rant. Christian Dior and his own eponymous label quickly fired him, and he was even detained by police. But within days of the incident he checked into rehab and his lawyers made known that he was taking all necessary steps to recover from his substance abuse problems and alcohol addiction. That was 2011. This past year, Galliano has taken steps to re-enter the fashion world, and fans seem ready to accept him back. It took two years, and a serious commitment on Galliano’s part to change his ways and his thinking. It’s possible for Deen to transcend this, too, if she shows the same kind of conviction of change and growth.