Three Media Lessons from Paula Deen

by Gerard Braud

Gerard Braud Paula Deen“I is what I is, and I’m not going to change.” That is the costly statement made by Paula Deen to Matt Lauer in an NBC Today Show.

“If you could attach a dollar to every word you say, would you make money or lose money?”

Those are the first words every executive hears when they attend one of the executive media training classes I teach, designed to help them become more effective communicators and a better spokesperson. [An entire chapter is dedicated to this issue in my book, Don’t Talk to the Media Until… 29 Secrets You Need to Know Before You Open Your Mouth to a Reporter.]

Paula Deen’s interview with the NBC Today Show and Matt Lauer is a living example of three common mistakes made by powerful people who fail to adequately prepare for a  media interview.

Lesson One: Plan Your Quotes

Granted, the racial slur in question is the event everyone focuses on. But in the June 26, 2013 interview with Matt Lauer, it wasn’t her use of a slur, but her failure to plan great quotes and her propensity to ad lib statements that could be taken out of context, that created the greater problem.Paula Deen Today Show

“I is what I is, and I’m not going to change,” Deen said, as my wife and I shared a cup of coffee in the kitchen, watching Today.

As soon as she said it, I told my wife, there’s the sound bite of the day. Sure enough, that was the sound bite that showed up moments later on CNN and every other network. Outside of the context of the full interview, this is a damning sound bite. If you are a person who believed before the interview that Deen was a racist, and then you saw just that quote on the news, she essentially said to you, “I am a racist and I’m not changing.”

Wow? Every day spokespeople continue to say dumb things in interviews and it appears there is no end in site. I would really like to know what, if any preparation she did before this interview. I would love to know if Paula Deen had a media trainer, or if, like many high powered people, she decided to just “wing it.” Did she mistakenly believe that because she is on television so often that no preparation was needed for an interview worth tens of millions of dollars?

In media training, I tell every potential spokesperson, “When you wing it, you crash and burn.”

It is amazing that companies will spend countless hours negotiating multi-million dollar contracts, yet spend little or no time training a spokesperson for an interview that could potentially cause them to lose millions of dollars in revenue with a single misplaced word or sentence.

Lesson Two: Apologize, Yet Understand the Rule of Thirds

Deen does get high marks from me for agreeing to do an interview. If you are in trouble, you need to apologize and make the apology good. She tried, but failed to get full credit for her effort because of her ad lib, oh shucks, I’m from the south persona.

My rule of 3rds applies to Deen’s case. I believe that for any public figure, 1/3rd of the people love you, 1/3rd of the people hate you, and 1/3rd swing like a pendulum, siding with the popular 1/3rd. To that extent, Deen will never lose her loyal following. Media stories showed supporters, black and white, outside of her restaurant verbalizing their love for the southern cooking icon. The monetary loss of sponsors begins when the 1/3rd in the middle decide not to buy your products any more, with, in my opinion, the nail in the coffin being a bad ad lib.

Great quotes must be planned, practiced, and delivered. Great quotes are not an accident.

Refer to this previous blog post and video for lessons on how a planned quote works, even to the point of making you a front-page headline.

Lesson Three: If You Could Attach a Dollar to Every Word You Say, Would You Make Money or Lose Money?

Ultimately, “I is what I is, and I’m not changing,” caused Deen to likely lose tens of millions of dollars. It became the trigger that caused more sponsors and retailers to drop her.

So let me ask you, before an interview, are you willing to ask an interview expert to help you prepare, or would you rather just “wing it?”



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