The PR crisis that Papa John’s is currently facing due to racially insensitive comments by its founder, former CEO and now former board chair, underscores the potential risk of putting all of your marketing eggs in one basket.
For years, John Schnatter has been the face of the popular worldwide pizza delivery business. From television ads to phone apps to pizza boxes, his image is inextricably linked to the company’s brand. That strategy can be very effective, as it was for many years with Papa John’s, but when that person messes up, like Schnatter recently did, the brand’s reputation and sales can take a hit.
In January, Schnatter, resigned as CEO, and days later kicked out of his Louisville, Kentucky office, after blaming slumping pizza sales on the NFL’s anthem protests. However, he remained as board chair and continued to be the face of the company.
Just two months ago, while undergoing a media training exercise with a New York agency to avoid another PR problem, Schnatter created another one for himself and the company. He used racially charged language while “downplaying the significance of his NFL statement,” according to Forbes, who broke the story. Schnatter admitted to it and apologized for his words while stating that “racism has no place in our society.” Hours later, Papa John’s put out their own statement announcing Schnatter’s resignation from the board.
Now, Papa John’s and their loyal franchisees are left to deal with the PR fallout
Because Schnatter was front and center with consumers, there’s no doubt his actions will negatively influence their feelings about the brand, at least in the short term. Big name partners such as the Miami Marlins and Major League Baseball itself have cut ties with Papa John’s. The company has already taken the right steps to abate the immediate crisis, but it has a lot of groundwork to do to restore trust and get back to the values that made them one of the largest pizza chains in the country.
Since Schnatter resigned from the board, there’s no need for Papa John’s to over-react to what happened, but the company still needs to take some proactive steps to repair its relationship with customers who have been hurt and offended. The new CEO should engage media immediately to further distance the brand from Schnatter and lay out a plan to get realigned with the company’s core values. It would also be wise for Papa John’s to evaluate its sensitivity training programs and workplace diversity initiatives and make changes where needed. The company can weather this storm if it acts promptly, decisively and with some compassion.
So what can other businesses and leaders learn from this crisis?
Making one person the face of your company cuts both ways
It be an effective marketing strategy and yield strong results, but if that person fails publicly along the way, it can taint the whole organization.
Have a plan to remove your brand’s likeness from all marketing assets ASAP if that person is the specific source of your PR problem
Papa John’s kept Schnatter’s face on the logo, on the website and other materials for some time after he disgraced and resigned.
If you are the leader of a business, your comments matter whether they are said in a public speech, private meeting or even a media training with your paid consultant
There is no excuse for the language Schnatter used during his PR training exercise even if he was trying to make a point about racism’s impact on society.
Politics and pizza don’t mix
Schnatter was already in hot water following comments he made about NFL protests during a conference call with investors back in November. He should have been more careful about how he expressed himself on such a polarizing issue or not said anything at all. When it doubt, leave it out.
Sometimes company leaders can create a PR snafu by making an honest mistake, but too often, they are self-inflicted
Either way, your crisis PR plan should address how you will publicly deal with the firing or resignation of your company’s top executive.