On Wednesday, Paula Deen appeared on TODAY with Matt Lauer to address the scandal over revelations that she had used racial slurs in the past. Her apology and explanation for her behavior was lengthy, but opinions are split over how effective her 13-minute mea culpa really was.
"She appeared very genuine," said Lily Golightly, owner and publicist with New York-based Golightly Media. "Her YouTube videos were kind of strange, and this interview should have cleared things up."
Unfortunately for Deen, the interview may have had the opposite effect.
David E. Johnson, CEO of Strategic Vision, a public relations and branding agency, calls her appearance a "non-apology" of Nixonian proportions. "(Former President Richard Nixon) never apologized by saying he was guilty or wrong about Watergate; she was the same way," he said.
And Golightly admits, "Toward the end it was kind of bizarre."
"From a PR aspect, what people wanted to know is -- could there be any more fallout, any more shoes to drop," he says. But Deen's categorically saying she'd never used the N-word other than what has already been discussed was a terrible move. "From a PR standpoint, that's a horrendous scandal. Now if anyone ever comes out with anything, ever caught her on a cell phone making a racial slur, she's done."
Other low points, according to Johnson:
- Referring to her work in the African-American/minority community: "That was odd because the one thing we have not heard from outside of her family is a rush of colleagues, ex-employees or African-American community members coming to her defense about all she's done in the community."
- Getting personal by naming Food Network (which canceled her show) and QVC (which has not yet disassociated with her): "The Food Network reference came almost as a veiled threat, wink-wink to her fans, daring them to boycott... With QVC she was almost daring them to take some action, as if she was calling them out."
- Her gestures and manner of speech seemed stilted and practiced: "It was almost mechanical, especially when she reached over and touched Matt's leg."
- Her poor, poor me stance: "She appeared angry at everyone who's been talking or questioning her, and it was almost like she felt she was a victim. The public and corporations wanted her to sincerely, humbly apologize and assume responsibility. Instead she went into a long thing about young African-Americans using the N-word."
- Saying, "I is what I is": The pidgin colloquialism rang instantly with racial connotations, something Deen seemed tone deaf about. "My wife was saying that's what she's going to remember from this interview most."
The fate of Deen's star power and her cooking empire remains to be seen; the apology (or lack thereof) could mean the difference between Paula Deen rising again or not. A successful mea culpa may put famous faces back into the public eye, though rarely without tarnish. Think of Bill Clinton, Tiger Woods, Alec Baldwin -- they've all been involved with scandals of varying degree and complexities, yet they all have returned to a place where they're accepted if not celebrated.
Deen seems to have done enough, according to some fans, who Tweeted post-interview with their support:
For other fans, reaction was a little more mixed.
So what can Deen do next? Golightly says she still has a few more steps to take.
"She needs to do something good now," she explains. "You have to outweigh the bad with good. She needs to come out on the other side and start inspiring social change. As an international businesswoman, she has the power to do that."
But in Johnson's perception, it's over. "There are some people who will still go crazy over Paula Deen, but the brand as we knew it is gone forever," he said. "She can't resurrect it -- and it's all due to the failed apology. Watching her on TODAY, she clearly doesn't understand the changes that have gone on in civil society. The apology has done her in."