After Fall From Grace, Can Paula Deen Recover?
Another day, another high-dollar deal lost for Paula Deen following a racial-slur controversy that's sent the Food Network and several large corporations, including Target and Wal-Mart, fleeing from the celebrity chef.
Despite the ongoing uproar, crisis management professionals say it's not too late to turn around this sinking ship. After all, Martha Stewart was able to rebound after spending time behind bars.
But Deen's path to recovery is a bit more complex.
Part of the problem, experts say, is that racial missteps are some of the hardest to smooth over. Another problem is the errors Deen has made so far in handling the controversy that has stemmed from her admission that she used the N-word.
"She made a fundamental mistake in the beginning by not getting in front of the story," said Jim Joseph, the North American president of Cohn & Wolfe, a communications firm.
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In general, he advises clients to be completely transparent about mistakes and take responsibility for them quickly.
What gets people in trouble, Joseph said is "never the crime—always the coverup." In order to successfully rebound, Deen needs to get back out in the public eye with new products and a new show.
In essence, she needs to go back to being Paula Deen.
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"If she goes into seclusion, she'll really quickly be forgotten," he said. "And the longer she does that, the harder it is to come back."
This strategy helped fellow domestic guru Stewart rebound with help from her fans after an insider-trading conviction sent her behind bars and later house arrest.
"I think Martha Stewart is a good example of that," Joseph said. "When she got out, she went right back to being Martha Stewart. Even though she was under house arrest, she was still recording shows."
It also helped Tiger Woods after a fallout from extramarital affairs caused many sponsors to distance themselves from the golf superstar.
"I think for him, he focused on his core skill set—he focused on golf and on winning again," Joseph said. "Because he was focused on it, I think that caused other people to focus on golf instead of him."
Despite describing Deen's situation as a "house of cards," Mike Paul, president of MGP & Associates PR, said Deen could still rebound. To get back into the public's good graces, she'll need to understand the root of the crisis, which is the pain that her offensive language caused.
He stressed the need for this change of heart to be authentic. If it's not, another interview will not help Deen, whose weepy interview Wednesday on the "Today Show" precipitated more companies' decisions to distance themselves from her.
"The next interview—are you going to believe her?" he said. "It's like the boy who cried wolf."
While being labeled a racist isn't as hard to rebound from as being accused of murder or being a pedophile, Paul said racism isn't far behind.
"From a business angle, a business will never risk being associated, even short term, with having the label of being racist," he said. "They will cut you loose first to save their own reputation."
One by one, Deen has seen her vast empire crumble as diabetes drug maker Novo Nordisk, Target, Wal-Mart, Home Depot, the Food Network, QVC, Smithfield Foods and Caesars Entertainment have all terminated their partnerships with her.
"I think it's going to be a long time before she gets big national endorsement deals again—if ever," said Nat Ives, AdAge.com's senior editor of media and innovation. "But she'll be fine in other ways—she may keep a lot of her smaller company endorsements."
Several of these smaller companies have rallied to her cause, as have many of her fans, who have taken to the Food Network's Facebook page to plead with the company for her return.
(Read More: Paula Deen's Fans Defend Her in Wake of Controversy)
In Joseph's opinion, these fans who first propelled Deen to fame are the best ingredient in a potential recipe for redemption.
"If she is smart, she will let her fans defend her, let her fans rally other people. I think that would be the smart way to go and the only chance she has," he said.
"If she tries to do it herself, I think she risks looking insincere and like she's just trying to get back into the game as opposed to wanting to be there for their fans."
—By CNBC's Katie Little. Follow her @KatieLittle.
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