The Papa John’s controversy won’t seem to die. The initial shock came when founder and CEO John Schnatter was found to have used a racial slur (it starts with n) on a racial sensitivity call. Immediately, the pizza giant went to work on distancing themselves from Schnatter. They started by removing Papa John from all marketing materials and advertisements going forward. He was removed as CEO and resigned from his chairman position, although he remains on the board. Then the company took it a step further by terminating his office space at Papa John’s headquarters.
When all seemed said and done, Papa John fired back. His lawyers were quoted as saying he would not “go quietly into the night”. Papa John’s responded swiftly with a “poison pill” policy. Essentially, it would prevent Schnatter from gaining majority ownership of the company, as he currently owns 30%.
This post is a long time in the making. Sure, I’m busy and had a few days where I meant to post this. But the reality is, shit kept hitting the fan. When Schnatter was removed from advertisements and marketing materials, or no longer the public face of the company, I thought that would be it. Then the office was taken away. Then the lawyers and Papa John had their say. Then the poison pill. Each step in the process I thought would be the last we’d hear publicly from Papa John’s for a while, but the hits kept coming.
Crisis communications is tricky these days. Today, it seems as though you can never punish an individual, an organization, or anything too much. The public will always lash out at your decision (or lack thereof) and you’ll really never get hit with negative PR for going overboard in your ruling. We are a society that loves to build up and break successful people down, which has only been exacerbated by the proliferation of social media. But I still have to believe there is a better way to handle such matters. And no, I’m not making light of the word Schnatter used. He deserved to have something happen to him, and Papa John’s had to act or be deemed a company that condones racism.
To me, once Schnatter was no longer the public face of the company he founded, and he resigned as chairman, I think the public was ready to move on. Sue me, but I no longer cared about the Papa John’s ordeal. Then I would arrive at my desk the next morning to find on social media that it wasn’t over. Each day, more news. When Schnatter was booted out of the office, that was a little far in my opinion. He was already going to be in the background from here on out, both publicly and from a tactical standpoint. However, I wasn’t bent out of shape about it. Don’t want to deal with TV crews camped outside your headquarters? That’s fine. But then the “poison pill” came into effect and the controversy went from another media maelstrom to an all-out war.
Regardless of your view on office politics, this is the part that you could keep private. Alerting the media that you are intent on doing everything in your power to make sure your founder never becomes the majority owner again is a strong stance, and one that the company’s brand didn’t need, much less the shareholders. The stock plunged even further after this most recent announcement. Kicking out Schnatter entirely would’ve been controversial even in private, but not unprecedented.
At best, the latter stages of Papa John’s war against Schnatter presents itself as protecting their interests. At worst, it looks like a knee-jerk reaction to please the public. My problem with this tendency to do the latter is that it is disingenuous and underscores the reason for the initial punishment. Think of it this way. You miss a friend or family member’s birthday party that you didn’t really want to attend anyway. Instead of allowing them to vent to you, you cut them off. “Oh my god, I’m so stupid. I’m the worst person in the world. I can’t believe how terrible I feel.” You keep spewing the sorry spiel, and effectively tire them out by relentlessly reminding them that you have a conscience, and not so subtly telling them to take it easy on you. They respond in kind, probably by doing just that; still trying to let you have it a little, but going decidedly easier on you than they would’ve had you said nothing at all.
I understand the rationale for these efforts. We will do anything we can to avoid being a punchline in 2018. It has become routine for major companies to be in the headlines for the wrong reasons, and often times the brand can take a bigger hit than any individual. In a case such as Papa John’s, where the brand and the person are literally intertwined, it is integral to do more than put mere “distance” between you and the face of your company.
However, I think the most underrated part of all of this is something Papa John’s and many others have totally missed the boat on in recent missteps. Don’t be afraid to disappear. If Papa John’s had nipped the Schnatter thing with all of its fireworks from the get-go, the story would’ve lasted the typical three days to a full business week. It really would’ve been old news. The public would’ve forgotten about it, and no one would be blasting the pizza joint or Schnatter at this point. But they refused to let the story die by insisting on controlling the message, which you can never do in an age where everyone has a megaphone.
A few weeks, maybe a month could go by, then Papa John’s could make a come-back. Maybe something along the lines of the Domino’s campaign a few years back where they basically told everyone that they know their pizza sucks so they made it better. If they chose to go this route, it would at least give the perception that they went back to the drawing board and did some honest introspection. They could claim to be a changed company, minus the dead weight and racism (Schnatter) while using it as momentum in a last-ditch effort to reclaim their pizza glory over market leaders Domino’s and Pizza Hut. Papa John’s lost their exclusive NFL contract to the latter shortly after the season ended.
All of this is a long way of saying, less really can be more, especially in crisis communications. Take some time, formulate your message and stick with it. You don’t have to beat your company up, the public will do that for you. The only problem with companies is that, like people, we always overestimate how much others think about us, and underestimate how short people’s attention spans are.