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Paula Deen diabetes: Make the most of it, crisis expert urges

January 17, 2012 |  2:05 pm
Paula Deen and Al Roker on the "Today" show

Paula Deen is just blowing it, y'all. That's what one crisis management expert says.

The queen of butter has officially pulled back the curtain on a poorly kept secret. She confirmed the long-swirling rumors, via interviews with USA Today and the "Today" show, that she has Type 2 diabetes. She also announced -- conveniently -- that she's the new spokeswoman for Novo Nordisk, which supplies her diabetes medication.

Did she then renounce her deep-fried, butter-and-sugar dripping ways? Did she announce plans to launch a sensible exercise regimen and invite the country to come along and get healthy with her?

Nope, nope and nope. In fact, Deen suggested that she has no plans to change her cooking style, although she says she has quit drinking so much sweet tea and walks regularly on her treadmill.

And that's where Paula Deen and her entourage completely blew it, said Mike Paul of MGP & Associates PR, a New York-based crisis management firm.

As he sees it, the crisis in Deen's brand is creating a golden opportunity. Deen could forgo her caloric ways and lead the charge to help the nation combat its obesity problem, he said. She could even invite the public to join her personal journey toward health and wellness -- and in the process launch a new franchise.

"She can say, 'Throw out the deep fryer,'" Paul said. "She can say, 'No more fried chicken. Now, I'm going to make it baked, and it's going to taste just as good.'"

Instead, he said, Deen appears to be playing a cagey game with the public by trying to have her cake and eat it too (pun intended). And it could undermine her fame and fortune.

We asked Paul how he would handle this branding crisis. Here's what he said:

"If I am sitting in the war room for Paula Deen brands right now, with all the attorneys and branding experts, I would say, 'Here's the bottom line. In every crisis, there is an opportunity. You have to choose to embrace it or not.'"

First off, Paul said, Deen should confront the three-year delay between her diagnosis and Monday's confirmation. "The only reason you'd wait three years is because you were concerned about what this news would do to your brand," he said. "I would advise her to simply tell the truth, 'I was nervous and afraid about announcing it. I didn't know what it would mean.' Everybody would understand that."

He also said he'd have advised her against "reaching for the green" of an endorsement deal at the same time she was revealing her diabetes. It could smack of opportunism. "Someone, someone very unwise, thought the best way of putting a spin on this was to immediately sign on with a diabetes drug," Paul said.

That's not a deal breaker, however.

But this is, he said: Deen continues to be unapologetic about her approach to cooking (she preaches an "all things in moderation" philosophy) and seems tight-lipped about plans to change her lifestyle.

This is a gray area that the public will find problematic, he said. Most people know that a diabetes drug is not the only answer. If Deen is simply going to take the medication but not take steps to change her diet and fitness regimen in a significant way or to advise her fans to do the same, then she risks losing her credibility, Paul said.

Audiences might start to feel conned, he warned, wondering whether Deen really cares about them, or just their wallets.

But all doesn't have to be lost, Paul said.

Deen could blow up her butter empire, he suggested, and replace it with a "Southern health food" empire that could make her far more popular.

"She has an opportunity to say, 'Times are a changing, y'all.... There's a way of making something taste good, in a healthier way," Paul said. "She could say, 'I used to think that taste was most important, but now I realize that nothing is more important than my family, nothing is more important than to see my grandkids. And I need to be healthy for that. That will always trump taste. I am not going to compromise on good food and flavor; I am going to do it in a healthier way.'"

"Sure, she might lose some fans who enjoy being fat and don't want to change, but she could reach a whole set of fans who want to follow her and be just like her and get healthy," Paul said.

She could even do this in celebrity style, he said. After all, Deen knows Oprah Winfrey,  Dr. Mehmet Oz and all the celebrity chefs in America. Why not throw out a challenge to her celebrity chef friends to help make over her recipes?

"I think there could be a huge opportunity that she finds in, in the midst of what someone else calls a crisis," he said.

So there you have it, the outline of a new business opportunity for Paula Deen.

Of course, neither Deen nor her representatives were available Tuesday to answer questions about what her diabetes acknowledgment might mean for the Deen brand -- much less her future career options.


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-- Rene Lynch
Twitter / renelynch

Photo: Paula Deen and Al Roker on the "Today" show. Credit: Peter Kramer / NBC