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How To Prove You're Not A Racist

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The empire of Paula Deen is crumbling.

Sears and Walgreens are among the latest companies cutting business ties with the celebrity chef, and Ballantine Books has announced that it will no longer publish her cookbooks.

Deen came under fire after admitting during a court deposition to using the N-word.

How can a public figure recover from a race-related, public relations disaster?

I sought out expert advice in Washington, D.C., where the cycle of scandal and redemption is an industry all its own.

Aiding The 'Drowning Victim'

First up is Dan Hill, president of the D.C. communications firm Ervin/Hill Strategy. He's the kind of crisis manager whom a public figure like Deen might hire to help find her way out of a scandal.

Besides corporations, Hill mainly works with three types of individual clients.

"I work with the wrongly accused," he says, as well as "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 want to make sure they handle it the right way."

But Hill says most clients who first come for his aid fall into one big category: the drowning victim, panicked and flailing for help. Often his first advice to them is to breathe, literally.

"We've all experienced the anxiety of making a mistake," he says. "Few of us have felt having that mistake broadcast to hundreds of millions of people and how that makes you feel."

Deen seemed to be drowning in her own tears by the end of her appearance on NBC's Today show, her first public interview after controversy erupted over her using the N-word.

Hill says there's no silver bullet to fix Deen's situation.

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

The timing for recovery from a race-related controversy is especially tricky, Hill says, because "it has to do with your character, your values, and your belief systems."

Becoming The Next Comeback

Eric Dezenhall, CEO of Dezenhall Resources, has been managing crises for three decades. He also co-wrote the book Damage Control: Why Everything You Know About Crisis Management Is Wrong.

But even this veteran crisis manager admits race-related cases are "notoriously difficult to get out of." He says the problem with these controversies is history — hundreds of years of history in which feelings are so deep that apologies and other conventional tactics often don't work.

"Parsing the allegation and trying to twist yourself into pretzels is not going to be your vindication," warns Dezenhall, adding that clients accused of saying something racist should not expect to encounter nuance in the court of public opinion.

But you shouldn't be defeatist either, says crisis manager Michael Frisby, president of Frisby & Associates.

"A percentage of people are going to question the authenticity of everything that you do. You're under a microscope," he says.

Still, he would advise clients tackling race-related scandals to take steps to build relationships with the communities they offended.

"You need to meet with them. You need to talk with them," he says. "You basically need to get their forgiveness."

Winning over entire communities may be an unreasonable expectation, Frisby notes.

But with time, genuine self-reflection and support from high-profile community leaders, the tide of negative public opinion may eventually begin to turn.

Frisby says sometimes there are silver linings for scandals in America.

After all, who doesn't like a really good comeback story?

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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