‘Barefoot’ and Ignorant: The Makings of Celebrity PR Meltdown

Celebrity chef Ina Garten, aka the Food Network Barefoot Contesssa, has cooked up a real PR disaster for herself; how could this happen?

Celebrity chef Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa — Food Network mega-star, bestselling cookbook author and posh convenience products maven — has cooked up a real PR disaster for herself.

Last Friday, we learned she’d declined three years’ worth of requests by the Make-A-Wish Foundation to meet with Enzo, a six-year-old battling acute lymphoblastic leukemia who became a huge fan while watching her show during treatment.

Enzo’s mother, who writes an alternately heartbreaking and inspiring blog about his struggle, posted the news.  It got picked up first by TMZ, then by other media and … well … flambéed from there.

Initially, Garten’s rep said definitively that the chef had passed because her schedule was too busy (apparently, for three full years), she gets too many requests and did other charity work.

Then after three days of endless roasting, Garten’s rep flip-flopped, stating that Contessa Dearest had never been made aware of the request and certainly wished to meet him.

Interestingly, Make-A-Wish announced that Garten was welcome to reach out to Enzo herself, but that they would instead honor his back-up request, to swim with dolphins who apparently didn’t have as jammed a calendar.

What’s strange is why this became a PR mess in the first place.

Similar scenarios involving what appears to be an imperious, detached talent get resolved invisibly every day. Why did this one blow up?

Theory No. 1: Her numerous PR reps dropped the ball.

I can attest that celebrities get endless pitches for help, many heartfelt but impossible to fulfill, others a little fuzzy in their intent and some outright bogus.

Yet the official involvement of Make-A-Wish — an established, credible, PR-savvy organization that’s well-connected across the entertainment industry — should’ve red-flagged this particular solicitation as important enough to acknowledge, consider and somehow finesse.

But it’s not as if Garten has one person managing her image who might not have been minding the store.

Beyond personal publicists are Team Gartens at the Food Network, her cookbook publishing company, the manufacturer of her pricey products and their prestige outlets including Crate and Barrel and Sur la Table.

All have significant financial and reputation management reasons to ensure her positive public image. Particularly among her key demographics which, I’d guess, are mainly women. Specifically, moms.

Did every one of these PR departments not track Garten’s media coverage quickly enough? Did they expect it would stay contained or blow over? Could no one come up with a clever solution to get Enzo and Contessa together somehow and give this unnecessary drama a quick, happy ending?

Most of all, do these PR people or, more specifically, the CEOs of their companies not have sufficient clout with Garten and her inner circle to have convinced them to do something fast to stop this mess?

Theory No. 2: No one around Garten understands social media.

While media coverage has been critical, the general public — speaking through Twitter, multiple Facebook pop-up pages, cooks’ and parents’ online communities and endless personal blogs — have been brutal. People are calling for boycotts of Garten’s books and merchandise and generating petitions to shut down her Food Network show.

But social media’s reach goes further than that.

The blog about Enzo didn’t just make us aware of this situation, it brought him to life.

Enzo isn’t just a name in a local newspaper article or snarky online tabloid item. Thanks to his mother’s engrossing blog, we know him: his good days and bad ones; his fears, willpower and most of all, his irrepressible optimism.

On the site, we see him — in some photos, worn out after yet another procedure. But what sticks with us most is his image on the homepage: a little boy with intelligent eyes and the sweetest smile, hamming it up for the camera.

How Garten or anyone reputedly looking out for her interests couldn’t get drawn into in Enzo’s story and his charm is beyond me.

Theory No. 3: Garten simply lives in such a vacuum that she thinks she’s above such controversies.

Two of the biggest myths that some celebrities tend to believe about themselves are a.) they’re just too busy and b.) no one will ever find out about fill-in-the-blank.

Wrong and wrong.

There will be fallout from Garten’s decision. People are already watching to see how quickly and warmly she reaches out to Enzo.

They’ll pay attention to her schedule and what charitable work she does. Such as the tony lunch she threw for six people in her Hamptons neighborhood who paid $100,000 for the opportunity.

If Contessa were smart, she’d fly Enzo and his mom to visit her, cook together, let him take endless photos and send them off with a giant box of her products and books. To steal the title of her new book, “How Easy is That?”

Just don’t whore out this lovely kid by letting Food Network film it as a “Very Special Episode.”

There’s one last wrong that needs to be made right.

Media coverage of the situation has constantly referred to Make-a-Wish as an organization that gives special opportunities to terminally ill children. That’s incorrect. That might be how many of us first knew MAW, but these days, they grant wishes to kids with life-threatening medical conditions. That’s a big difference.

Especially to Enzo and his mother. Imagine seeing all this amazing media coverage and public support about their seemingly-small request, but also reading that it’s being done for the “terminally ill,” just as Enzo completes his treatment.

Enzo’s mom took everyone to task in her follow-up blog post — rightly so — that such words were wrong and unnecessarily stressful.

So let me send a message to my favorite new celebrity Enzo: I wouldn’t know a “roulade” if it rolled over me and my friends, unlike the Contessa’s, aggressively avoid my kitchen.

But my dream is that you get well very soon, as it sounds like you’re doing, and I hope to see you become a great cook yourself.

And keep that gorgeous smile going.