How To Prove You're Not A Racist : Code Switch Celebrity chef Paula Deen went into damage-control mode this week after admitting to using racial slurs. How do public figures make the bad news go away and set out on the road to redemption? Public image experts weigh in.
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How To Prove You're Not A Racist

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How To Prove You're Not A Racist

How To Prove You're Not A Racist

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary. The brand empire of Paula Deen is dissolving. Sears and Walgreens are among the latest companies cutting their ties with the celebrity chef, and last yesterday Ballantine Books announced that it would no longer publish her cookbooks.

Paula Deen came under fire after admitting during a court deposition that she'd used racial slurs. So how does a public figure recover from such a disaster? We sent Hansi Lo Wang of NPR's Code Switch team to ask some experts in Washington, D.C., where the cycle of scandal and redemption is an industry all of its own.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Hi, good morning. Hansi Wang from NPR to see Dan Hill.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Sure, come on in.

WANG: Thank you. Our first expert is Dan Hill. His job, to make bad news for his clients go away. And on this day he's been hearing a lot of bad news.

DAN HILL: I might get a phone call. Let me turn my phone to vibrate so it doesn't interfere.

WANG: You're in the middle of a few crises yourself.

HILL: Well, my clients, yeah.

WANG: Hill is a crisis manager with the communications firm Ervin/Hill Strategy, someone a public figure like Paula Deen might turn to to find her way out of a scandal.

HILL: I know good people who know they made a mistake and want to fix it. And others that see a mistake on the horizon that might become public and they want to make sure they handle it the right way.

WANG: Hill says most clients who first come for his aid fall into one big category: the drowning victim, panicked and flailing for help.


PAULA DEEN: If there's anyone out there that has never said something that they wish they could take back, please pick up that stone and throw it so hard at my head that it kills me. Please, I want to meet you.

WANG: Paula Deen seemed to be drowning in her own tears by the end of her interviewer earlier this week on NBC's "Today Show." It was her first public interview after controversy erupted over her using the N-word. Hill says there's no silver bullet here.

HILL: I think I'm one of the best in my field. I can't help her get out of this in a week. This is the kind of thing that will take maybe years, decades, for her to overcome.

WANG: Is that timeframe because it's race-related versus any other type of controversy?

HILL: Yeah, I mean, if she had an accounting issue, those things can be corrected more quickly. Something like this that has to do with your character, your values, your belief systems, they take longer.

ERIC DEZENHALL: Race cases are notoriously difficult to get out of.

WANG: Eric Dezenhall has been managing crises for three decades. He says the problem with race-related controversies is history, hundreds of years of history in which feelings are so deep that apologies and other conventional tactics often don't work.

DEZENHALL: Parsing the allegation and trying to twist yourself into pretzels is not going to be your vindication.

WANG: Dezenhall says don't expect nuance in the court of public opinion, especially when you've been accused of saying something racist, but you shouldn't be defeatist either, says crisis fixer Michael Frisby.

MICHAEL FRISBY: You have created an audience that no longer believes in you, no longer likes you, no longer wants to hear you.

WANG: So authenticity through actions, not just words, will be key. Remember, though...

FRISBY: A percentage of people are going to question the authenticity of everything that you do. You're under a microscope, OK?

WANG: But Frisby says sometimes there are silver linings for scandals in America. I mean, who doesn't like a really good comeback story? Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, Washington.

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