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Crying Over Spilled Milk: What Companies Can Learn from the Paula Deen Disaster

Paula Deen may be the most recent celebrity to ruin the brand she built, but she is certainly not the first. Consider Martha Stewart, Tiger Woods, and Lance Armstrong. At one point, all had an empire built around their name and reputation. And, just like that, all were vehemently vilified by the press and public when an aspect of their personal lives became front-page news, resulting in the swift destruction of their businesses.

PR disasters can happen faster than a boiling pot can run over, and as Paula Deen is learning, it is hard to contain the mess once it has been unleashed. Even if companies do not have a national celebrity as the face of their business, there is a lot they can learn from the Calorie Queen’s downfall.

Separate the brand from the CEO (or other high-powered figure)

We are all human. What happened to Paula Deen can happen to any business owner.  People make inappropriate comments, go to prison, sleep around, and take steroids (see above-named individuals). When your face is more than just who you are, though, you have to tread lightly in the public eye.  When your face is your brand, negative publicity affects business.

Food Network, Smithfield Foods, Wal-Mart, Novo Nordisk, and Home Depot did not drop Paula Deen because her products were not up-to-par. They dropped Paula Deen because her public image tarnished her brand.

A company should not rest on one person’s reputation, but should be built around principles, a mission, or a niche. That way, when the higher-ups make a mistake, the company can continue. With that being said, management and boards should be concerned with how the highly visible, well-known figures in their companies are behaving, whether they are on national TV or at a local charity gala. Employment agreements should always include expectations regarding behavior and how one represents the company. Extensive background checks should occur for any employee who could potentially taint the brand.

Act fast, but fully assess the situation

In the age of social media, an incident can lead to pandemonium in no time. Allegations can spread quickly and extensively. Whether, when, and why Deen may have uttered an offensive racial slur is of no matter because Facebook and Twitter reported that she did; that was enough for public conviction. If gossip is spreading about your business, do not be afraid to address it head-on through social media or a press release. But do not fall victim to knee-jerk reactions. Take time to investigate, come up with a game plan, and take necessary action before addressing the publicity. If the incident is so bad that your company’s future is on the line, then hire a PR team to step in.

Thank employees, customers and clients for loyalty

There are a lot of angry fans out there who think Paula Deen was thrown under the milk truck. In the midst of almost every PR crisis, there will be supporters. These people will stand by the company when others are jumping ship. Make your gratitude to them known, whether it is in the form of a bonus, sincere message on your company Facebook page, or a customer appreciation day. Find some way to turn the situation into a positive one.

We have likely not heard the last of Paula Deen. Her brand, though in the trenches now, may pull through. And there is always a scorned celebrity book deal to be made. Smaller companies may not recover so easily from PR blows. Business owners should always be monitoring their image and employees to minimize risks. HR departments should be pro-active. Expectations should be communicated. Professionals should be consulted if needed. If you are a business owner and find yourself in a situation that can harm your business, give the McBrayer employment law attorneys a call. We’ll be there for your business through thick and thin.

B. Johnson

Brandon K. Johnson is an Associate in the Louisville, KY office of McBrayer, McGinnis, Leslie & Kirkland, PLLC. Mr. Johnson practices primarily in the areas of insurance defense, employment law, and general litigation. He can be reached at bjohnson@mmlk.com or at (502) 327-5400, ext. 2313.

This article is intended as a summary of state and federal law and does not constitute legal advice.


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