Social Media, and How The past Comes Back to Bite

Post Date: 07/02/2013 01:28 pm

     As a recovering chef, we can count on one hand the Food Network stars we actually respect.  Paula Deen has never been one of them; we found her approach to TV cooking long on blather and short on technique, and having eaten at her restaurant in Savannah we think her reputation is wildly overblown.

    Those things, in our view, might have justified dropping her from the Food Network lineup, though we’ll admit people like us aren’t the network’s core audience.  But we’re fascinated – and appalled – that she’s just been jettisoned by the network (and some big-name sponsorship relationships) for something she admitted saying years ago.

    That something, in case you’re unaware, is the so-called “n-word” – a term used freely and colorfully to this day by African-Americans but which is commonly held as off-limits to anyone who isn’t.  Deen admitted in a deposition (in a lawsuit not related to race relations) that she’d used the term years ago.

     We have little truck with political correctness but think that In general, the way the word is used (or not used) today is a reasonable, gratifying and significant mark of this nation’s progress away from institutionalized racism.  In most of its 19th and 20th century connotations it was used in extraordinarily ugly ways.  Today, it’s used – among those unofficially permitted to do so – as an almost affectionate term.  

    Even so, it seems to us that what happened to Deen is entirely unreasonable.  Deen’s firing is the direct result of a social media assault.  Like most such assaults, large numbers of people drew conclusions based on one fact that was presented without context, and they were egged on by partisan media and certain corners of the blogosphere that have a vested interest in keeping the idea of broadscale racism alive.

    Twitter, incidentally, is an especially dangerous tool in this regard.  The character limitations of Twitter all but guarantee a lack of nuance and detail, and the re-tweet function means that an item can propagate quickly with no thought involved by those who pass it along.

    In the face of this online version of torches and pitchforks, large corporations decided to cut their losses and shove Deen out the door.


    If you don’t find that worrisome, you should.  Decades ago, many people – of most races, we’d bet – used that term and others of of similar pejorative value without much regard for the inherent cruelty of the terms.  We confess that we did so ourself back then, almost invariably in the form of the type of jokes favored by adolescent males (who tend to find jokes demeaning others riotously funny, no doubt reflective of the average adolescent male’s own uncertainty regarding his place in the world). 

    Perhaps you’ve never said anything hurtful in your life, and if this is the case we’d be delighted to buy you a beer, so that we can pick your brain in order to find out how you did it (or determine just how much of a liar you actually are).

    Even so, Deen’s situation is a cautionary note for all.  Social media can result it one being pilloried for something said or done many years ago, even if no actual malice was intended (that’s Deen’s position and we’ve little reason to doubt her).  It bears repeating that this story keys on ONE FACT that wasn’t presented in proper context – and that’s the sort of thing can happen to anyone.

    Today, Deen’s Facebook page – and that of the Food Network – both show remarkable support for Deen, and we strongly doubt that she’ll ever have to worry where her next meal will come from. 

    With that said, there are some key lessons from this story about crises in today’s environment:


  1. The past can come back to bite you, even if what’s carrying the teeth today wasn’t seen that way back then.
  2. The media will almost invariably glom onto the most spectacular aspect of any story, in order to attract ears and eyeballs.
  3. The public is only too happy to assume the worst, and both can and will arrive at an incorrect and/or unfair conclusion based upon scant information.  It tends not to second-guess a one-sided story.
  4. The best defense is prophylactic: to maintain an overwhelmingly positive relationship with stakeholders, using every tool at your disposal to do so.  Those people will almost invariably rise to your defense when something goes haywire.
  5. Even if you execute #4 perfectly, you can still get screwed.