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What's Cooking in Savannah: Paula Deen in the Fire

The real issue, which hasn't been clearly determined, at least publicly, is what Ms. Deen actually said, what she did, and when her actions took place.

June 24, 2013

Last week, the Food Network announced it would not renew Paula Deen's contract when it expires at the end of June. Her dismissal occurred after she admitted using racial slurs in a pre-trial deposition involving a lawsuit filed by a former employee. She may be the first Southern chef to make the news this way, at least from my recollection, but what happened to her is a recipe for disaster that any leader would do well to consider.

The network's vice president of communications, Paul Campbell, indicated it does not "tolerate discriminatory behavior." What he meant in terms of how it manages its workplace is unclear.

What is clear is that the Food Network won't renew Paula Deen's contract due to consumerism, not legalism. Her admittedly racially offensive comments caused the cable channel to fear the wrath of its viewers and their impact on its viewership, sponsorship and bottom line. What if this case been quietly settled, and what if the Food Network had known what she did but had assurances it would not be leaked publicly? Given those "what ifs," please raise your spatula if you believe she would have lost her contract.

For business leaders and celebrities, the lesson here is that unacceptable behavior—particularly with racial, sexual, or ethnic taint—risks brand damage, a harm that can devastate the careers of even the most powerful or popular offenders.

In today's all-pervasive media climate, managing leader conduct has become a business imperative, not just a litigation strategy. Mark Hurd and Hewlett Packard shared the same sharp lesson. Any corporate leader and board would be wise to remember both of these "teaching moments." They are not the first and won't be the last.

This is not about the South, except that Ms. Deen is a great Southern chef. Corporate and national overall culture, not Southern culture, is driving these events. Inappropriate, demeaning, and outrageous language is found throughout all 50 states, not just in my adopted Georgia or in the rest of the Old Confederacy.

Paula Deen could have been a seafood chef and would have faced the same fate in Boston or San Francisco. The region where she was born or worked is not the issue. Ask Michael Richards, who played Kramer on the TV show Seinfeld, if he disagrees with me here. He was born and raised in California. His notable incident involving racial insults occurred in his native state and likewise roasted his career.

The real issue, which hasn't been clearly determined, at least publicly, is what Ms. Deen actually said, what she did, and when her actions took place. If the conduct occurred within the recent past, there's just no explanation except, at best, rank insensitivity. It is just not believable that Ms. Deen, a successful entrepreneur and celebrity, would have no knowledge or awareness that racial slurs and widespread mainstream public acceptance are about as incompatible as serving fried chicken with a side of foie gras.

If Ms. Deen uttered cruel, painful word[s] decades ago, what she has done since then over the course of her life deserves consideration and, as she has asked, perhaps some measure of forgiveness. Again, there's a lot we don't know.

Yet, we do know that organizations with highly public profiles and broad consumer followings will quickly cook the goose of any leader or celebrity whose outrageous action risks lasting damage to their inclusive image and brand appeal.