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.


Leaving the Script Behind

What sets the best presentations and briefings apart from the mediocre ones? It’s the presenter of course. No amount of slides and no script can do what the presenter themselves can for an audience: communicate powerfully and persuade. Real presentation skill is about showing your audience something that’s not on the slides, not on the script. Follow some simple rules that all great presenters use to separate themselves out from others.

The Presenter Is Everything

No two presentations (even using the same materials or messages) are going to be exactly the same and that should never be the goal. Your presentation has to be built around your most powerful tool: yourself. That’s because authenticity is going to be key to informing and in particular, persuading an audience of something. If you follow a script too literally, you’re going to limit that tool to the words you’ve rehearsed instead of staying in the moment and allowing your own passion to show. You have to be confident enough to show each audience who you really are and they can never get that from the script. This is oral communication, so when you present, you simply have to present in an authentic way that allows your audience to see the confidence and belief you have in what you’re saying. That simply can’t come from a memorized script and in fact it’s often why formal presentations and speeches fail; a lack of authenticity. To soar, you need to reveal real truth to the audience about what you’re seeing, why you believe it, and what they’re to do with this information.

Presentations And Briefings Aren’t About Acting

Many times, clients want to know how a successful presentation “looks”, so they can copy whatever they think is working. The truth is, authenticity can’t be copied. You’re going to have to be very clear about what you believe before you get up to present or brief someone else. Your audience is not going to be persuaded of anything if they think you don’t even believe what you’re saying. Don’t be afraid to use “I” in your presentations. What about your own experience or background relates here? We’re often our most relaxed, authentic selves when we’re speaking about our own experiences. If you don’t believe and believe strongly in what you’re saying, find another way to get the information communicated. Save oral presentations of any kind for those areas you’re passionate about. You WILL be judged when you’re standing before others presenting information, so this is the time to make sure they see you at your best.

Perfection Isn’t Your Goal: It’s Successful Communication

Presenters worry that if they don’t follow (or worse, memorize) their prepared script, they’ll blank out or stumble. Your audience isn’t expecting perfection; they’re expecting something interesting, worthwhile and pertinent to them. Focus on the content of what you want to say and make sure that content is built around what you know to be true. If you build your presentation simply around that, your authenticity and passion will far outweigh any minor flaws. You want your audience in the moment with you and focused on some essential information, not on the flawlessness of your reading abilities.

However you present, remember the materials are secondary to you, the presenter. Don’t be afraid to try some different ways of communicating those ideas and to never take a back seat in your own presentations!

Leaving The Script Behind Doesn’t Mean Leaving The Practice Behind

You don’t want to memorize your script because remembering the words will be all you’ll be concentrating on. You want to practice until the essence of the presentation feels right, even second nature, before setting the script aside. The exact words you use are far less important than delivering the right information that’s tailored right to your audience and what you know they need to hear from you. If you doubt this, try putting your far more detailed information into handouts or printed material, and see what happens when your audience simply hears the “essence” of what you’ve come to deliver from you.  They’ll be engaged and hungry for more information, which is exactly what you want. You can add far more detail in the q and a portion once they are engaged and you know what else they want to hear from you.

Just Take The Leap

Start by lifting your briefing or presentation up to its highest levels. Once you decide on your key ideas (no more than three), allow yourself to orally explain each one briefly. Hear what you naturally use as your strongest points behind each idea. Let those ‘bigger’ ideas guide you as you hone your oral presentation. Many if not most presenters simply sit and write their scripts and then try to rehearse and memorize, causing the “inauthenticity” problem of so many oral briefings. Try reversing the process (without the memorization).  You need to hear yourself repeatedly get through the presentation without the script to get closer to what your audience is actually hearing and seeing. Once you get your core ideas down, you can gradually add a bit more; until you’re satisfied your presentation contains only the best of what you want to communicate. After all, that’s what your audience really wants to hear.

You really can present and deliver briefings like a pro! Leave the script behind and let your audience see you at your best, authentic self.


Crisis Communication Gone Wrong

The John Edwards Lesson Of Career Implosion – And What You Can Learn From It

Let’s start with the obvious. Even in these cynical times, it’s safe to say that conducting an extramarital affair is not an action we associate with “good character.” When that “someone” is a nationally known public official, a man who sought to lead the nation as a vice-presidential and later presidential candidate, you’ve got the ingredients for a major scandal. Now add a loyal and highly-respected wife who happens to be waging a public battle against cancer – and campaigning for her husband while the affair is taking place. Mix in a textbook failure in crisis communications once the scandal breaks, and you’ve got the makings of a career-ending implosion.

Not so fast, say the cynics. New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani had a strong enough following to launch a presidential run, even after an admitted affair and some questionable behavior toward a seriously ill first wife. And of course, there’s the “comeback kid” himself, former President Bill Clinton, still on the national and international stage after denials, admissions and endless humiliating details of marital infidelity. Aren’t we now just too jaded, too sophisticated, to let a mere sexual dalliance destroy a political career? Not when you’ve done as poor a job of crisis communications as John Edwards has in the wake of this scandal. If there was any hope of him rising from these ashes, I’ll submit Edwards himself has ended it. So what are the lessons John Edwards failed to learn?

  1. When you’re in a hole: Stop digging. This is both the most obvious and the most difficult rule for those in crisis to follow. Recognizing the gravity of the situation, people often do what Edwards did initially: issue denials, avoid questions, send up smoke-screens and shift blame. These are the tools of a child and eventually, they will be recognized as such. No matter how unsophisticated you regard your audience, don’t build your response around the assumption they’ll remain ignorant.
  2. Bad news will come out. Get it out yourself. What realistic hope did Edwards have that the story of infidelity would just go away? In retrospect, none. The delay between when the tabloids first reported the story and when it was picked up by the mainstream media outlets was due to lack of proof, not lack of interest. Eventually, Edwards was forced to admit the affair, but in failing to get ahead of the burgeoning scandal, he lost all credibility.
  3. Know Your Vulnerability. Edwards staked a claim as a moral candidate, one whose family was the central focus of his life. He even criticized President Clinton over the Lewinsky affair, particularly for the pain it brought to the Clinton’s family. Further, in discussing his wife’s personal battle with cancer, Edwards claimed that a political figure’s personal life was indeed fair territory for voters to explore in determining a candidate’s character. That weakened Edwards’ claims to privacy and made his refusal to answer questions hypocritical. If nothing else, all of those who feel aggrieved by the actions should be acknowledged.
  4. Learn what an apology is and is not. Even some of the most loyal of Edwards’ supporters read his statement of apology as worse than inadequate. In a disastrous performance, Edwards made claim to being “99% honest” because he had admitted the affair to his wife, while denying it to everyone else. Edwards strikingly made a point of noting his wife’s cancer had been in “remission” when he began the affair as though that lessened its impact, and laid blame for the affair on the unaccustomed attention he’d received as a national figure. By failing to acknowledge any broader implications of his behavior other than the banal admission of a “serious error in judgment,” and by refusing to acknowledge what this might say about his own character, Edwards missed any final opportunity to stem the bleeding.

Crises are never easy, and it’s more difficult to see them clearly the closer you are to them. That’s exactly why judgments are so immediate and so harsh when one fails to handle oneself well in a crisis. People think they see a person’s real character – or lack of it – 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.


The Power in Presentations: a warning for senior executives

We can easily recognize why presentation skills are so highly prized. Credit for the work usually goes hand in hand with those who are accomplished at speaking and explaining the work. That’s why senior executives in particular, know the value of coaching. They know their work can’t and won’t speak for itself–They’ll have to become adept and making others understand and appreciate it’s importance and their contribution to it.

The positive impact on careers and reputation that powerful presentations have is understood to a greater degree than the flip side of the equation. Poor presentations also leave deep impressions that can unfortunately cause real and lasting damage. A poor business presentation can leave the impression that it’s not just the presentation that’s not up to par, but our work or our competence generally. Even if your reputation can withstand such doubt, it’s important to understand just how much damage a poor presentation can have. These are missed opportunities at publicly proving the value of our good work and they take on added weight for senior executives, especially when ‘presenting up’.

When they present to those they report to, executives tend to put a lot of thought and practice into their presentations. Under the stress of workloads however, that commitment can slip. That’s understandable, but it doesn’t change the equation. Speak poorly and others will question more than your oral presentation skills. They’ll question your very abilities.

That’s why it’s so important for senior executives to heed this warning. You simply cannot allow yourself to be standing before others unprepared. If time pressure prevents adequate preparation, look for alternatives. You might delegate the task on occasion and give others a chance to show their competence. You might look for other means of presenting information, such as written summaries, or delegate part of the task, such as putting together drafts. Do what you have to do to control those high-stakes appearances and limit them to those times you are confident and ready.

Solidifying a great reputation will take more than the occasional home run. Show up ready for your best, each and every game!


PowerPoint or No PowerPoint: That is the question

During every coaching session, the question is sure to come up. “Do I have to to use PowerPoint in my presentation?” PowerPoint has become almost synonymous in some circles with the modifier “boring”, but that’s not the fault of the tool. It reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of that tool’s purpose.

Before you toss the tool, ask yourself whether you’ve been using it effectively. Are your slides packed with text? Is the point of each slide difficult to follow? Are the slides chiefly there to help you communicate your points? Are you using your slides both as presentation tools and as handouts for the audience to read and refer to later?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you may not be using PowerPoint very effectively.  Remember, if your audience can see and hear you, you need to be communicating differently than if you sent your information in an email, or mailed out printed material. Oral communication demands something different from both the presenter and the presentation. [Read more…]