Paula Deen dropped a bomb on her butter-loving fans Tuesday. The celebrity chef, who has built an empire based on her Southern-style recipes, revealed she has had Type 2 Diabetes for the past three years.
While the reveal may appear to be a public relations nightmare seeing as the chef continued to cook and promote her high-fat and high-sugar meals and desserts after her diagnosis, some say Deen is in a unique opportunity to do some good in light of her health issues.
Cliff Courtney, EVP and chief strategy officer of Zimmerman Advertising, said Deen was simply irresponsible for not coming out with her disease from the get-go. Considering the obesity crisis the country is facing, and the loyal following Deen has, she could have saved lives, Courtney argued.
"Her empire is built on serving heart attacks on a plate," he said. "It's not like that is an empire she should be very proud of at this point. But don't think for a second that Paula isn't the tip of a much larger issue of overeating in America."
For branding expert Julia Stege, the fate of Deen's cooking empire lies in her authenticity.
"It seems as though she is coming out with this news in an effort to inspire people, and give them hope," Stege said. "She is taking a light approach to it, and has done some modifications to her diet. It's all about being who you really are."
Deen has also partnered with pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk as its spokesperson for the Diabetes drug Victoza, and is contributing to its online program, "Diabetes in a New Light," according to the Website. Stege said that so long as her approach to maintaining her disease is true to who she is, her brand will likely come out untarnished.
"Her supporters say she has emphasized moderation, and now she will even more," she said. "But, if she really wants to help people, she's not helping them by making them really want that fried chicken."
Deen's "moderations" aren't doing her fans, or her own health, any favors, Courtney said. Making a real change like going vegan or creating a healthy meal plan for herself and her followers would send a stronger message and likely incite some change.
"I don't think she would be tarred and feathered for it," he said. "It's not going to change overnight, but her empire can take a hit for the better. All along people have been protecting her empire at the cost of people's health."
Stege, who created the brand for California's Cafe Gratitude, a raw food chain, said that Deen will be forced to re-evaluate her brand only if she is interested in making real change happen among her fans.
Deen has the power and funds to make real changes to her brand. Stege said Deen has a loyal following that will likely back her up, considering the style of cooking she is famous for is in contradiction with a shift toward more health-conscious consumption.
"She could have decided to partner with someone like Dr. Oz to come up with diabetes-healthy cooking," she said. "But the message (Deen is giving) is that you can eat whatever you want, take this drug and walk an hour a day and still eat my food."
While a small business owner may not have a Deen-sized empire at stake, public relations crises come in all forms. Stege said a business owner that faces a similar challenge should stick to its roots.
"When we make a decision about branding and how authentic we appear to the world, it's a personal process and decision," she said. "If its inauthentic to keep doing what you were doing before, that's when you have to take a leap of faith."
Courtney said a business should stick to the ABC's of public relations when going up against an unflattering story or issue that threatens their brand.
"Get the whole story out right away," he said. "If Paula had just done that, it would have been better. Don't forget the building blocks of your business because bad news will not hide in America. There is too much exposure, so get it out fast, first and entirely."