Whether it’s a celebrity cookbook or a charity designed to help at-risk women succeed, timing is everything in launching a new publicity campaign. Perhaps no one knows that better than Southern cooking diva Paula Deen, who has been the subject of intense media scrutiny since the revelation in June that she admitted, under oath, to making racially insensitive remarks in the past.
Deen made the admission during a legal deposition for a civil suit brought against her and her brother, Earl “Bubba” Hiers, by a former employee who alleges she was the victim of sexual harassment and a pattern of racial discrimination at one of the family’s restaurants.
Since Deen’s admission, many of the companies with which she had lucrative endorsement agreements have severed their ties with her. Among them are Food Network, Home Depot, Walmart, diabetes drug maker Novo Nordisk and her former publisher, Random House, which has cancelled the October release of Deen’s 15th book, even though it had become the No. 1 pre-seller on Amazon.com in the days following the public disclosure of her remarks.
Nearly lost in all the negative publicity was the May announcement of Deen’s new philanthropic endeavor, The Bag Lady Foundation, whose mission is to support agencies addressing hunger relief and empowerment of at-risk women. (The foundation is named for the once-small catering business Deen ran with her then-young sons, Jamie and Bobbie, who now enjoy food business careers of their own.)
But controversy may cloud even this.
This week, publicists associated with branding the foundation on Deen’s behalf sought to distance themselves from an endorsement of the embattled Savannah restaurateur attributed to Ethel Kennedy, the 85-year-old widow of Robert F. Kennedy.
In a news release posted on PaulaDeen.com, Kennedy, renowned for her eloquent advocacy for social justice causes, is quoted as comparing Deen to Mother Teresa and dubbing her the “Goddess of Gravy”:
“Dolly Parton, Wolfgang Puck and Morther Theresa – blend them all together and you’ve almost got Paula Deen,” said Ethel Kennedy, Founder Robert F. Kennedy, Center for Justice and Human Rights. “With her grit, talent and heart of gold, this Goddess of Gravy shows us the way to feed the hungry. Let’s help Paula make room at the table for everyone.”
The news release was distributed by The Rose Group, a strategic communications consulting firm that lists “protecting reputation [and] crisis and issue management” among its specialties. Two account representatives stated on Tuesday that the quote “came directly from” RFK Center Communications Director Meaghan Baron.
After initially declining to acknowledge the folksy testimonial and offering to “look into it,” Baron provided a statement by email late Tuesday afternoon. “Mrs. Kennedy offered this quote in response to the launch of Paula Deen’s new foundation. She has been a generous supporter of the RFK Center and helped focus many Americans’ attention on issues like embracing healthier eating habits. It is in that context that Mrs. Kennedy provided this quote.”
While she offered a warm endorsement for Taylor Swift when the singer was dating her grandson Conor Kennedy last year, the matriarch’s public remarks typically reflect a more measured tone. Youngest daughter Rory Kennedy, who produced the HBO documentary Ethel, describes her mother as “extraordinarily articulate.” The Boston Globe observed that Ethel Kennedy made herself available to promote the film after being “largely out of public view for four decades.” “Mother used to be more outgoing, but then she stopped,” says daughter Kathleen Kennedy, who serves as president of the RKF Center.
Despite the collapse of Deen’s business empire, the Kennedy name may be helping to leverage fundraising for the new foundation. Foundation attorney Andrew Morton says about $92,000 in contributions have been received to date, including corporate gifts from cookware manufacturer Meyer Inc. and the FOX Network show Master Chef. More than $70,000 has been received through individual contributions from the general public.
“No one has asked for them back and we have no reason to believe that they will,” Morton says. “We continue to see a significant grassroots movement in support of Paula.”
The foundation was incorporated as a nonprofit in New York State on Aug. 29, 2012 and initially operated under a fiscal sponsorship. Morton filed the Form 1023 application for exempt status under section 501(c)3 of the Internal Revenue Code on March 15, 2013. Projected expenditures for 2013 are $90,000, including $56,000 for staff and miscellaneous fees from the anticipated $155,000 contributions.
Morton recalls that the official IRS notice of exempt status was received on June 12 – the day after the media blitz sparked by revelation of his client’s deposition comments. A planned national marketing push for the charity has been placed on hold.
The foundation website includes online donation options and a link to its grant application form. So far, Morton says, “We have received fewer than 10 applications. It’s in the single digits.” He anticipates the first grant will be provided before the end of 2013.
The damage to Deen’s butter-rich brand has not deterred her most ardent fans. Dozens of pro-Deen pages have been created on Facebook, including We Support Paula Deen, which has more than 589,000 followers. One of the page’s administrators is Christopher Ford, who also runs the foodie website Stiches ‘n Dishes, which features a virtual Paula Deen Store powered Amazon.com. July transaction fees earned from sales of Deen’s signature cookware and related products will be donated to the foundation. If Ford meets his goal of selling $75,000 worth of goods, the donation will be about $5,000.
Ford said the top seller has been pre-orders for Jamie Deen’s Good Food: Cooking Up a Storm With Delicious, Family-Friendly Recipes. Deen’s elder son’s first cookbook without his brother Bobby is due on store shelves Sept. 17. He is scheduled to visit Raleigh’s Quail Ridge Books & Music on Oct. 1 as part of a publicity tour.
Ford says response to his fundraising effort has been very positive. “Some people are tired of hearing about the story, but if we post something, within minutes people are taking actions,” Ford says, adding it’s not unusual to register 30,000 “likes” within 30 minutes. “Every time I do that, I immediately see people go to the store and buy stuff. It’s just phenomenal.”