Paula Deen blew it

Or did she? What’s your take on the Deen-diabetes-drug deal?

Paula Deen is a brand. And Paula Deen is a business. She has a TV show, cookbooks, a magazine, cooking tools, dishes, food products, and on and on.

Will the Paula Dean brand suffer because of her choice to keep her diabetes diagnosis private until she lined up a spokesperson deal with a pharmaceutical company to promote its diabetes drug?

Would announcing she had diabetes when she found out three years ago have hurt her brand then, especially considering that her show promotes cooking foods that are generally considered unhealthy?

Should she have taken some time to reflect on the news and the impact it would have on her personal and professional lives because of the diagnosis, then learned what she used to help her fans?

I’ve been following the reaction to her announcement in the news and on social networks, and people seem to have two opinions:

  1. She blew it.
  2. She has a right to keep her diagnosis to herself.

Because of the industry she’s in and the type of food she promotes, and because she is a brand and a business, the privacy option the rest of us have doesn’t apply to her. Keeping quiet about this for three years is the foodie equivalent of the married politician who promotes family values having secret sex with hookers.

(If you missed her announcement, watch it here:)

Regardless of why she got diabetes — her diet? genetics? sedentary lifestyle? — the fact is, the food she promotes can contribute to diabetes in others. She had a responsibility three years ago to share what she learned. When she didn’t, she became guilty of withholding information that she — and her managers — knew would influence how some people perceive her brand.

That’s forgiveable — really, it is. But to wait until she could profit from her disease to tell her fans that she had it? That’s wrong. Just plain wrong.  But it’s good business for the pharmaceutical company, isn’t it? We now know about a drug that diabetics can use to help manage their symptoms — some of which might be managed by making healthier, non-Paula Deen food choices, too.  If this had unfolded in a more socially-responsible way, the drug would have received far less free media exposure. I’d have a better feeling about both the drug company and Deen if she had affiliated with it after she had introduced healthier recipes and ingredients to her show and her brand.

But back to the original question. Did she blow it? Will her brand as a cookbook author and food industry empress be tarnished by the way she handled this situation? It certainly undermined any perception of integrity for a lot of us — but is that enough for her to sell fewer cookbooks or kitchen gadgets? We won’t have an answer to that for some time, but what’s your opinion? Did she make a mistake by sharing her health news only after she could benefit from it financially?


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11 Responses to Paula Deen blew it
  1. Pat Amsden
    January 19, 2012 | 9:02 pm

    I don’t think she blew it. I’ve never heard her say her food is diet food or that people should always eat that way. I’ve heard her say (as she stirred in another stick of butter that if you were watching fat or cream her show was the wrong show for you or words to that effect. Whenever I’ve heard it come up she’s always made it clear that what she’s cooking at that particular time or serving in her restaurant isn’t diet food. She loves her butter and cream, bacon etc and feels it makes the difference to her cooking.

    If I have a chance to go to one of her restaurants and eat her food I want the type of food she’s known for. I’ll diet later if necessary.

    Should she have made her health condition known? It’s a personal matter and I could see why she might not want to come out with it immediately.

    It does seem she’s been strategic in announcing it at the same time she becomes a sponsor for a drug company with a drug to help diabetes but in the end it’s her decision. If she’d promoted her food as food to lose weight by I’d feel differently but she didn’t.

  2. Sandra Beckwith
    January 19, 2012 | 9:31 pm

    Thanks, Pat. She certainly is known for foods & ingredients that aren’t good for you if you eat lots of them long term!

  3. Vivian Kirkfield
    January 20, 2012 | 4:32 am

    Sandy…I thank you!!!! Awesome article!

    The first time I saw a Paula Dean cooking show, I was shocked at the ingredients she was using. OF COURSE the dish is going to taste good…with a pound of butter and cream and sugar and everything else we are supposed to be careful about eating. I couldn’t believe how popular she was (and her line of gourmet foods, many that are chock-ful of SALT!). I’m not saying a person should never eat dessert or something with butter or cream…but I always felt she was encouraging people to indulge themselves on overly-rich foods.

    I agree that it was dead wrong to hold off telling the public about her condition until she had arranged to help promote a diabetes drug…that’s like someone who commits a crime and then sells the story to a magazine or newspaper, hoping to make a million dollars. But they say bad publicity sells just as well (or better) than good publicity. Maybe she will write a book now about how she is coping with diabetes and be an instant Amazon best-seller. 🙂

  4. Sandra Beckwith
    January 20, 2012 | 3:06 pm

    Thanks, Vivian! I would have thought that Paula Deen and her team would have realized by now that transparency is SO important, especially when an individual is the brand. This whole situation so opaque that it’s offensive.

  5. Dorothy Crenshaw
    January 20, 2012 | 9:43 pm

    Great post, Sandra.
    While I wouldn’t say she blew it (I think she still has plenty of fans) she will, and has, suffered a bit from media cynicism. As you point out, there’s a brand empire at stake. But when a personality is based on authenticity and straight talk (albeit, sugar-coated!), it’s a real mistake to be so…well, weaselly, about it. She wanted to have her cake, and eat it, too. Disappointing.

  6. Sandra Beckwith
    January 20, 2012 | 9:51 pm

    Thanks, Dorothy. She’s hurt her brand, but it will survive, right? I think more than the media reacted with cynicism to this, although I suspect that it went over the heads of many…. Loved your blog post on this topic, too, at http://bit.ly/wOb5HG

  7. Eric Webber
    January 20, 2012 | 11:10 pm

    She definitely blew it. At least in the sense that she had three years to prepare for this and when the time came, she seemed so, well, unprepared. This could have actually been a win for her brand long-term, instead, she’s using up a lot of goodwill while putting out avoidable fires.

  8. sheila glazov
    January 21, 2012 | 6:35 pm

    I have seen Ms. Dean’s program a few times, and was amazed by the ingredients she used. Our son has had Type 1 diabetes for 26 years and my father had Type 2 diabetes, so our family has always been aware of eating healthy well balanced diet, exercising and following a strict diabetes managment regime. I feel that Ms. Dean missed the educational opportunity 3 years ago and now, to create a well researched awareness about diabetes and encourage people to take better care of themselves by setting a healthy example for her fans. It’s not just about “moderation”. Diabetes can be “death sentence” because of the complications that develop from this insideous disease. It is diappointing that she is not sharing that fact!

  9. Rhonda
    January 26, 2012 | 2:04 am

    Well, here goes nothing:

    1. This is why I’ve struggled so long with creating/promoting a “brand” for myself, and why I’ve subscribed to your wonderful newsletter for almost a year now. Just when I began to think that building a brand maybe isn’t so bad, this set me back to my original struggle.

    2. It’s as if a brand ceases to be a person and gives up all rights to privacy and personal decisions. Many people will say, Yes, exactly; but I disagree. I’m pretty sure I don’t want to become a non-person who lives in the court of public opinion. Apparently, that means I should re-think being an author (although, again, I disagree).

    3. My non-fiction book is in the editing stage, but one of the things I teach in it is the spiritual discipline of privacy and how it helps maintain inner stability in a clamoring world that demands everything from you in the name of transparency. Most people are hopelessly trapped by it, both as the public and as public figures.

    I absolutely mean no disrespect and no offense, but this is a perfect example of it. Ironically, I couldn’t help note that Paula seems to have been opportunistic in her approach. Whether or not she blew it probably depends on what she’s trying to accomplish. Just my .02 cents, for what it’s worth. Thanks for your newsletter, tips, and wealth of information!

  10. Sandra Beckwith
    January 26, 2012 | 2:52 am

    Rhonda,

    I understand what you’re saying about privacy issues, but in reality, most of us will never have to worry about the downsides of achieving the brand status of the Paula Deens or Martha Stewarts of the world. Many people achieve a certain level of stardom or status in their niche, but aren’t well-known by the average consumer. Their brand shines while their privacy remains protected.

    Also, if your brand is “authentic” and transparent, you won’t have to worry about these sorts of problems, should you be fortunate enough to reach the stratosphere where these types of problems reside. This was such a bad fit for Deen’s brand that her PR person quit over it.

    On the other hand, if I had something tucked away in my past that I’d like to keep in the past, I wouldn’t be shooting for Paula Deen-level brand status. At that level, people are looking in your closets. You’re too big of a target. And yet, you can write a trunkful of books and never have to worry about that — being an author doesn’t automatically make you a brand. It’s one small piece of a big process.

    Thanks for taking the time to provide such a thoughtful comment. You sound like somebody who wants to make a difference, so I hope Paula Deen’s missteps won’t stop you!

  11. Marcia Layton Turner
    February 3, 2012 | 10:50 pm

    They say “timing is everything,” and I think that applies here, too. If she had announced she had diabetes, we would have clucked about her diet but perhaps applauded her for coming forward. If she had announced her son had a new show debuting that featured healthier versions of her recipes, again, I think we would have been fine with it. But to wait years before announcing her diagnosis and leveraging it to secure a spokesperson gig with a pharmaceutical company, that, I think, was poor judgment. Her brand will be damaged as a result.

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