Papa John’s Latest PR Debacle: A Crash Course in Bad Crisis Communications (or the dangers in confirming the worst people think they know about you)

**Update**  As of July 12, 2018, it was announced John Schnatter is stepping down as Chief of the Board of Directors, but will remain on the board.

You don’t have to be a Crisis Communications expert to slap your head over this one.

Papa John’s founder John Schnatter is apologizing (again) after using a racial slur that got him fired from his own Public Relations agency.

As part of a media training exercise, the former CEO and current Chairman of Papa John’s was asked how he’d distance himself from racist groups. He reportedly used the N-word and whined that Colonel Sanders never faced any heat for using it. When the story became public (courtesy of Forbes and an “anonymous source”), his apology showed how little he’d learned from his first disastrous self-induced crisis.

This is the same chief executive remember forced to step down last year after blaming lagging pizza sales on reaction to (overwhelmingly African American) football players, who’d taken to taking a knee for their beliefs during the national anthem.

You’d think after being forced out of the Chief Executive’s job over those remarks comparing pizza sales to civil and human rights, (and weighing pizza more important), some lessons would have been learned. Apparently not.

So what are the lessons Mr. Schnatter failed to learn the second time around at public humiliation?

  1. When you’re in a hole: stop digging.
  • This is often both the most obvious and the most difficult rule for those in crisis to follow. Fairly or unfairly, Mr Schnatter was already known for his prior inflammatory remarks. Whether he personally believes NFL players have a right to protest or not, of greater consequence is conflating their protest publicly with pizza sales. At best, the self-serving remarks were insensitive. At worst, they were cause for potentially thousands of customers and would-be customers to question his racial animus. To follow that up with AGAIN confirming racial “insensitivity,” will only serve to prove the worst believed about you. As someone who heads a consumer brand, that has predictable and immediate results. Stay tuned.
  1. Bad news will come out. Get it out yourself.
  • What realistic hope did Mr. Schnatter have that the story of his own marketing agency firing him in protest over racial insensitivity wouldn’t get out? In retrospect, none. Once again, he seemed to be caught completely unaware of the fallout his remarks would likely have and failed to get in “front” of the story before the inevitable happened. While this written “apology” came more quickly than the last, it rang as hollow. It came only in response to the Forbes story, and it only made matters worse. That leads to the third lesson that apparently escaped Mr. Schnatter:
  1. Learn what an apology is and is not.

An effective apology (read: sincere) takes FULL responsibility without casting blame on others. An apology seeks to make some kind of restitution to those harmed. An effective apology is tied to a course of corrective action with a promise to avoid the offense in the future.

Full responsibility (for those who remember their growing up years) means just that, without excuse. The “non-apology” apology that has unfortunately become standard operating fare in the public arena (“to those I may have offended”) just won’t do. While Mr. Schantter didn’t try to shift blame to others, he didn’t exactly take full responsibility either. His official statement admitted the “inappropriate and hurtful language” Forbes reported, but then went on to explain the context of his use of the “N” word. Finally, the statement said, “Regardless of context, I apologize.” Context? Sir, there is no possible “context” for that word to be used, and particularly not in official corporate business.

The use of the “N” word has no place, no safe home, that doesn’t reflect back on the one uttering the slur. If Mr. Schnatter had thought that the private business nature of the conference call offered him some cover, not only was he obviously wrong, but that wouldn’t have been an excuse. “Character,” as John Wooden said, “is who you are when you think no one is watching.”

Crises are never easy to manage, and always more difficult to see clearly the closer you are to them. Predictably, this one is about to get worse. Judgments will be immediate and they will be harsh, particularly when those watching think they already know the worst about you. People tend to think they are seeing the real character (or lack of it) of a person when they are under fire. And they just might be right.

Aileen Pincus is a former local and national television reporter and senior Senate Staff, now a leading executive communication coach, training corporate, government and non-profit executives in the art of communication.

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