Should a Conference Speaker Stay or Go?

Celebrity chef Paula Deen admitted to using a racial slur in the past, prompting many of her corporate partners to drop her. What lessons can the association meetings industry learn from the scandal when it comes to hiring (and firing) conference speakers?

No matter where and how you get your news, this week you’re sure to have come across these names: Nelson Mandela, Wendy Davis, and Edward Snowden. Also just as likely on that list is celebrity chef Paula Deen, who admitted in a deposition for a workplace discrimination suit—a transcript of which was leaked last week—that she used a racial epithet in the past.

How would your association determine whether to let that conference speaker appear or to cancel?

In an effort to remedy the situation, late last week Deen posted a series of apology videos on YouTube and then earlier this week she sat down for a live interview with Today’s Matt Lauer.

But the fallout to what Forbes magazine estimates to be a $17 million business empire has been severe. Food Network was the first to announce it would be ending its contract with the chef, followed by Smithfield Foods, Walmart, Caesars Entertainment Corporation, Novo Nordisk, Target, and Home Depot. QVC and Sears have said they are still contemplating the future of their relationships with Deen.

Still others have come out to show support. Sales for her books have surged on, and her annual Paula Deen Cruise added a second departure for 2014. In addition, the Metropolitan Cooking and Entertaining Show, where Deen is a key personality on its website and advertisements, says she will remain a speaker at its fall events.

“Paula Deen has been a friend of The Metropolitan Cooking and Entertaining Show for many years. She has apologized, and we are taking her apology at her word and moving forward accordingly,” the show’s rep told Fox News. “The Metropolitan Cooking and Entertaining Show does not condone or believe in the use of derogatory slurs by anyone. This is a nation of forgiveness and second chances. In that spirit we intend to go forward with the MetroCooking Shows …”

Whatever your opinion on the Paula Deen story, it does give associations a lot to think about when it comes to speakers for their own meetings and events.

Imagine if a person scheduled to speak at your upcoming conference admitted to using a racial slur in the past or made a derogatory statement in the months, weeks, or days leading up to your event. How would your association determine whether to let that conference speaker appear or to cancel? Deen herself is a familiar face at association events. Last year she appeared at the National Medical Association’s conference, and earlier this year she was announced as a speaker for the American Association of Diabetes Educators Annual Meeting in August. (No official word from AADE yet on whether she’ll still appear.)

While many professional associations have a code of ethics or standards of conduct that apply to their members (who may sometimes be the speakers themselves), it’s less common for associations to have an ethics code or standards clause for their speakers. (But if you’re an association that does, please share in the comments.)

As with any other decision your association makes, you won’t please all members or attendees, and no matter what the organization decides, both outcomes could have similar effects: Attendees and other speakers cancelling or exhibitors pulling out of your tradeshow are probably among them.

One way to mitigate these effects is to be as transparent as possible to your members, attendees, and the public as to how you came to the final decision. Perhaps you could even poll your registered attendees on what they’d like to see happen.

And then once a final decision is made, a solid communications plan for before, during, and after the meeting is a requirement. Another consideration, if you do allow the controversial speaker to take the stage, is whether extra security is needed in case protesters are expected to show up at the venue.

If your association were put in a position where it had to determine whether to cancel a speaker, how would the decision-making process go? Please share in the comments.

Paula Deen during one of her apology videos posted to YouTube last week. (YouTube screenshot)

Samantha Whitehorne

By Samantha Whitehorne

Samantha Whitehorne is editor-in-chief of Associations Now. MORE

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