Papa John’s Pizza: 3 Crisis Communication, Public Relations, & Marketing Lessons to Learn


Gerard Braud, CSP, Fellow IEC

Papa John’s Pizza has a crisis. The crisis communications lessons, lessons for CEOs, for marketing and public relations teams, seem endless. This is a public relations and marketing crisis that appears to lack an expert in public relations and marketing. If you don’t believe me, look at the Papa John’s website as well as the images that I have included here.


Lesson 1:

If you could attach a dollar to every word you say, would you make money or lose money?

Papa John’s founder John Schnatter has resigned as of 10:59 p.m. on July 11, 2018 because he used the “N” word in a conference call conversation. As I write this at 10 a.m. CDT July 12, 2018, the company’s stock has lost $96-million dollars in value. The phrase, “If you could attach a dollar value to every word that comes out of your mouth, would you make money or lose money?” is from Chapter 2, page 3, of the book, Don’t Talk to the Media Until… 29 Secrets You Need to Know Before You Open Your Mouth to a Reporter. Of course, in this case, the “N” word was not said to a reporter directly, but the dollar impact and lesson of guarding your words still applies.

I had planned to stop with just this lesson until I went to the Papa John’s website to get more information, which brings us to…

Lesson 2:

Does your crisis communications plan include contingencies for your CEO’s resignation and if your CEO is literally the face of the company, does your crisis communications plan include steps to remove that face from the company’s website?

Yes, John Schnatter’s face is in the logo, and as I write this, it is still live on the web.

Yes, John Schnatter’s face is in the logo and the news release announcing his resignation. Really? Did the public relations, marketing, branding, investor relations, and legal teams… did none of them think, “We need to change the logo.”?

And look at the all-important About Us page. Here you will find a huge picture of the CEO with his team.

Lesson 3:

Every crisis communications plan should have a massive library of pre-written news releases.

Paramount in that library of should be a pre-written news release for the CEO’s resignation. Twenty years ago I created a library system that relies on a variety of multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank options. My theory is that on a calm, sunny day, your clarity of thought is better than on your darkest day. Hence, you can pick your words more carefully and have them pre-approved by your legal team.

But… and let us call this Lesson 3.2: You call this a news release?

Papa John’s news release contains no context, empathy, or apology. Context, empathy, and apology are key components in crisis communications.

What should you do?

Every crisis is a time to gather your executive team, with your public relations, marketing, and branding teams to discuss the crisis of the day, the lessons learned, and to update your own crisis communications plan to handle just such a contingency. If you fail to do so, then you are failing to do your job.

Crisis communications should not be considered the art of putting lipstick on a pig after a crisis. To be a crisis communications expert you must anticipate every sort of crisis you could face, and write a living crisis communication plan to handle every scenario.

About the Author: Crisis communications and media training expert Gerard Braud, CSP, Fellow IEC is based in new New Orleans. Organizations on five continents have relied on him to write their crisis communications plans and to train their spokespeople. He is the author of “Don’t Talk to the Media Until…”

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