Let's face it: Celebrity chef Paula Deen's career hasn't taken a big hit because former employee Lisa Jackson accused Deen and her brother, Earl "Bubba" Hiers, of sexual harassment and discrimination at their restaurants. Deen has seen her reputation and Southern food empire crumble because of Jackson's charges of racism, backed up by black employees, and Deen's frank acknowledgment in a deposition that she has used the "N-word."
On Monday, a federal judge in George dismissed the racial discrimination part of the suit, ruling that Jackson, who is white, has no standing to claim discrimination on behalf of black employees. The other parts of the lawsuit will go forward, but with the damaging racial component off the table — and out of the news — will Deen be able to rebuild her reputation?
Deen's PR team is certainly working on it. After Judge William T. Moore's decision, Deen's camp released a statement applauding the ruling and insisting that "those who truly know how she lives her life know that she believes in equal opportunity, kindness, and fairness for everyone."
Deen's ex-husband, Jimmy Deen, predicts a full recovery. "Paula will come back bigger and stronger," he tells Celebuzz. "She's a fighter," and "people that jumped on that bandwagon and only heard one side and not Paula's side are wrong." She's not a racist, he adds, and the stores that dropped her as a partner — Walmart and Target, especially — should clean up their selection of foul-language CDs and books if they're so offended by Paula Deen's old linguistic history.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. It's good news for Deen that "close friends, relatives, her former chef, and some columnists defended her in public," says Maria Puente at USA Today. And fans showed their support by buying up her cookbooks. But in "the public relations and career management worlds, heads are shaking and faces are grim," Puente says. What's done is done, and "Deen has been damaged in ways few in her position have ever suffered and recovered from."
And it's not like Deen was acquitted of being racially insensitive, Reputation.com's Howard Bragman tells USA Today. "You have to play in the court of law and you have to play in the court of public opinion. Like O.J. Simpson, who won in the court of law but lost in the court of public opinion — Paula's in the same situation. You can't put the toothpaste back in the tube now."
That seems to be a popular view. "The narrative has ben set," David E. Johnson, CEO of Suwanee, Ga., PR firm Strategic Vision, tells USA Today. Deen is "not the sweet lady we thought she was." If you're a corporate sponsor, why would you bother subscribing to the Paula Deen "soap opera"?
"They're looking at it from a dollars-and-cents standpoint," Johnson says. "She doesn't appeal to millennials. She's alienated the African-American community." And while some fans point to Deen's invitation to join Dancing With the Stars as a sign that she's not toxic, it's actually much worse. When you get the call from DWTS, Johnson says, "you know you've jumped the shark. That's where she is right now: She's a caricature of herself."
Still, Johnson says, by turning down the offer to humble herself on the dance floor, Deen shut off one possible path to redemption. She should have said yes, he says, "to poke fun at herself, but I don't think that's her personality. She takes herself too seriously, and she feels that she's the victim." You can't ask for redemption if you don't understand the transgression, and Deen has "never really understood why people were offended."
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