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Paula Deen: Can she save her career? Crisis managers weigh in

Paula Deen’s appearance on the “Today” show Wednesday might not save her career — but it may be her best move after a disastrous few days. (Update, 8 a.m.: Paula Deen on ‘Today’: More defensive than apologetic)

“If I hear one more nitwit say, ‘She needs to get ahead of the story. . . ,’ ” said D.C. crisis manager Eric Dezenhall. “It’s called damage control, not damage-never-happened. You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.”

The celebrity chef, reeling from revelations she used racist slurs, has already been dropped by the Food Network and Smithfield Foods. Now Deen is struggling to protect the rest of her Southern-fried empire: a Savannah, Ga., restaurant, her magazine, a gig as spokeswoman for a diabetes drug, assorted retail deals and a slot on QVC — which collectively bring in an estimated $6 million a year.

Since damaging excerpts from a deposition went public last week, Deen and her team have scrambled to respond — and basically botched the job: abruptly canceling a scheduled interview with “Today’s” Matt Lauer last Friday, then releasing tearful, heavily edited apologies that look more like hostage videos than a sincere mea culpa.

“What you’re really seeing is a person who has just been hit by a bus and her life as she knew it is over,” said Dezenhall. Instead of strategy, there’s “sheer terror, chaos and panic.”

On Tuesday, Deen’s sons weighed in, claiming that their mother was not a racist but rather the victim of a former employee suing to score a huge settlement. “I’m disgusted by the entire thing, because it began as extortion and it has become character assassination,” Bobby Deen told CNN.

Still, Deen’s “Today” appearance is too soon, said Dan Hill of Ervin/Hill Strategy. “No one is going to buy what she says now, even if it’s a perfectly crafted message. Everyone thinks you should respond immediately, but with something like this, usually time serves them well.”

But since she’s going ahead with it, it’s crucial that she comes across as authentic. “What we need to know from her is that she understands precisely why those words are distressing — as opposed to apologizing for offending people,” Dezenhall said. “This has to be a reckoning.”

Some people will never forgive her, but some, of course, have or will. Martha Stewart and Tiger Woods survived scandals and resumed their careers by lying low and focusing on work. Deen’s fans have already started campaigns to get her reinstated on the Food Network.

Best advice? “Go away for a while,” Dezenhall said. Don’t give interviews for a year, then quietly resume work — and be content with less fame. “Most people recover, but not at the same level.”

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