Papa John’s Backpedaling on NFL Hype (Op-Ed)

Ronn TorossianRonn Torossian, CEO, 5WPR

Not long ago, the CEO of Papa John’s Pizza created a public relations tsunami with his comments relating to the NFL protests. The protests themselves have been incredibly controversial, splitting the fanbase and causing attendance and sales to drop for the league overall.

John Schnatter might have considered this before blaming his company’s sluggish sales, in part, on the protests… but he didn’t, and that set off a firestorm. Speaking to investors, Schnatter said: “This should have been nipped in the bud a year and a half ago… The controversy is polarizing the customer, polarizing the country.”

Papa John's Backpedaling on NFL Hype When these comments went public, the competition wasn’t far behind to criticize, with Pizza Hut claiming the issue had not hurt their sales at all. This statement created the counterpoint protest supporters were looking for, and Schnatter’s comment became a political and social bellwether, even though he clearly did not mean it to be.  

Papa John’s became the butt of jokes on late-night TV and endured days of relentless criticism on social media. Finally, after nearly a week of the barrage, Papa John’s took to Twitter to try to stop the bleeding: “The statements made on our earnings call were describing the factors that impact our business, and we sincerely apologize to anyone that thought they were divisive… That definitely was not our intention.”

The comment was fair, honest and straightforward. Certainly, appropriate given the original intent of the comment everyone was so up in arms about. But… well… they kept “talking.” Follow up comments from the official account indicated “support” the players’ protest, but that, “as Americans, we should honor our anthem…”

This, again, was a solid, middle of the road comment. But it was tossed into a maelstrom that is anything but “middle of the road.” Now, responders were demanding Papa John’s pick a side. Since they had already “said something” now they needed to either condemn the protests or condemn those offended by them. That put the company in a real no-win situation.  

The unfortunate lesson here, for Schnatter and all the rest of us in business, is that nothing – literally nothing – said in public is safe from the social media public relations massacre machine. The platforms offer tremendous benefits, but they can also act as untethered megaphones for negative reaction and demands for the polarization of everything.

These days, even what’s said in private can destroy a career. The takeaway: Always Be Ready. If you are in the public in any capacity, from Chewbacca Mom to President Trump, you need to be ready to properly respond.