Alternative Title: What Papa John’s can do next in its PR debacle. Need a quick refresher on the situation? Let’s back up.
We all know the controversy swarming around the national anthem and the NFL players. But last fall, instead of saying something articulate and thoughtful on the situation (which he is totally entitled to have an opinion on, or not comment at all), John Schnatter, Papa John’s founder, actually blamed the protests on their slumping sales. Um, what? Whether you agree or disagree with the players who kneeled during the anthem, the point they were making was for racial inequality and police brutality. Not pizza. The next month, Schnatter stepped down as CEO. Then in February, Papa John’s was no longer the official pizza sponsor of the NFL. They claimed it was mutual. Hmmm. This debacle was enough for the declining pizza brand to have its own PR problems, but oh wait — it gets worse. (The NFL has also had its share of bad PR but that’s another post for another time.) So this May, Schnatter, still chairman of the board of directors, was on a conference call with his new marketing agency. The agency, being smart, was holding a media training call, which is a standard protocol for executives. And especially smart given the mess Schnatter had caused a few months prior. These calls are meant to help coach and guide executives as they potentially face tough questions in the future about what’s happened in the past. Instead of this call being helpful, Schnatter actually used the N word. What, again? (The irony of this happening on a proactive media training call is still blowing my mind!) When word got out, he stepped down again. And Papa John’s is trying to distance itself from him. Good luck, because that guy loves himself and has been in EVERY ad and website/social media page. This morning, he’s now claiming the resignation was “a mistake,” and board members pressured him to resign without “any investigation” and based its decision on “rumor and innuendo.” Sorry, Papa, but the N word is the N word. And never OK.
Papa John’s new CEO issued an open letter, which was OK. The last thing their PR team needs right now is everyone’s opinions, but, here is mine! Here is what I think they should do next.
Rein in all the store social media pages
When I handled the PR and social media for a fashion retail brand, at one point there were 1,200 stores across the country. And each store was starting its own Instagram, Twitter, and/or Facebook page without consulting the marketing team first. Egads. That was a huge mess for about three years, where some were in the camp they should have their own page and individuality and customer service. But when it came down to it, they were posting incorrectly and off-brand. And some of the photos were atrocious. So eventually the store pages were banned, and that took until after I left. It’s a touchy situation, especially for Papa John’s, where a lot of the stores are individually franchised and operated. But at this time, when things are hyper-sensitive and consumers are watching you with a microscope, no piece of content should go unturned, and every piece of content needs to be approved (with a fine tooth comb). So it’s best to keep everything humming from the main brand pages only.
Stay under the radar, and don’t keep up with the social media Joneses
We all know how food brands are especially snarky on Twitter these days (looking at you, Wendy’s), and it’s a lot of fun. Case in point, when the chains were “roasting” iHop over their (fake) name change, like when Burger King declared it would now be “Pancake King.” Fun, harmless. But when the next opportunity strikes, Papa John’s should definitely stay quiet and keep posting restaurant messaging and answer customer service inquiries only. This is serious, and not time for fun. Maybe in 2019, but not this year. Stay neutral.
Don’t be disingenuous
When Starbucks had an issue with racism a few months back, it shut down its corporate-owned stores for a few hours to do racial sensitivity training. While maybe not the best solution, Starbucks did try and according to Shel Holtz, was on the right track. While it may have worked for them, anything they do now in that regard (such as trainings, donating, etc.) would look too obvious now in that they’re trying to distract. Instead, they can talk to their teams internally and continue business as usual. Keeping a low profile is essential. This morning they tweeted out the following:
I don’t think that tweet was necessary; the open letter is OK to keep right now, then be quiet. I wouldn’t continue to drag this out with posts. As we know, nothing you post is going to make saying the N word OK, or make people accept your apology. Time is going to be on its side right now.
Take a page from Subway
In the late 90s and early 2000s, Subway ruled because of their marketing in the weight-loss realm. Remember Jared? That was everything (until it wasn’t when we all learned what a huge creep he turned out to be). When that did happen, Subway quickly responded with posts on its social pages that were simple and to the point: they no longer had a relationship with Jared, and didn’t have anything further to say. That was that. They moved on without getting sucked into the chatter. And now when we think of Subway, we don’t think Jared. (We just think “He went to Jared.”)
All in all, the Papa John’s brand is doing everything right, right now. If it just stays mellow the rest of the calendar year, and works on improving its image starting with its internal employees, they should do just fine. After all, distancing itself from Schnatter was the best first step. Now, be quiet and make pizza.