Handling bad publicity on social media: a lesson from Papa John’s

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Handling bad publicity on social media: a lesson from Papa John’s

How much do comments by leaders and employees online and offline impact your organization?

Often organizations will ask if something said by a leader offline or online could really influence bottom lines. And if they don’t respond or acknowledge bad publicity, will it impact their reputation?

One only need to point to the current US President, when wondering if there are ever consequences for what you say and do online and offline. However, less than 12 hours ago John Schnatter, founder of Papa John’s announced he would be stepping down at year end. This leadership shake up follows polarizing comments Schnatter made during a conference call Nov 1 about company earnings.

Schnatter blamed slow sales at Papa John’s (one of the NFLs sponsors and advertisers) on the opposition of players taking a knee during the national anthem in protest of police brutality. He implied that NFL leadership allowing players to take a knee during the anthem hurt the NFL’s TV ratings; hurting the sales of pizza which is advertised during games. Following the infamous conference call, Papa John’s spoke to the Wall Street Journal about their NFL sponsorship and the decline in viewership (they were evaluating their contracts.)

Backlash was quick and fierce; even other pizza giants jumped in.


DiGiorno Pizza slams Papa Johns


Two weeks later Papa John’s apologized via Twitter. (Also responding to connection to alt right.)

papa johns twitter


They continued to maintain their position:


papa johns twitterpapa johns twitter

papa johns twitter


But did the comments impact the company’s reputation and bottom line?

The day the story broke on ESPN, Papa John’s stock was down 8.5% However, when you look at the five year market summary, it’s obvious that the company has seen many ups and downs. With that said, you can see on the three month summary that there was a dramatic drop that they haven’t yet recovered from. It’s not fair to say that the comments are wholly responsible for the drop, just as it’s not fair to say that the drop in NFL viewership is also to blame for slow sales growth.

papa johns market report

papa johns market report

papa johns market report

How should an organization handle bad PR online and offline?

The focus is always on the immediate comments causing the bad viral storm, but the reality is that other issues within the organization can come to the surface which can be far more detrimental. Some quick social listening via Twitter brought up comments and articles shared online surrounding employee treatment at Papa John’s (e.g.: wages, hours, insurance, etc.) This information has potential to be even more damaging to the company. So how should they handle it and what should they do next?

1) Listen. Spend a finite amount of time online listening to the issues that come to the surface and respond when and where you can (you should really make social listening a part of your process year-round and not just during crisis!) If your organization is serious about ‘making things right’, listening and engaging in a meaningful way demonstrates good will and transparency (key ingredients for rebuilding trust.) A “meaningful way” is not just shoving key messages out, it’s sincerely conversing. 

2) Don’t reactively respond. If you look at the timeline from when the comments were made by Schnatter and the apology, two weeks passed. During this time there were no shortage of harsh tweets and social media commentary against the organization. However, auditing their Twitter account showed that they made no acknowledgements of tweets or posts referencing the comments during this time. Why? If you’ve ever worked corporate, an official statement can take a while (e.g.: lawyers need to approve, leadership needs to approve it.) This situation was far more complex than responding to a tweet from a PO’d customer who paid for extra garlic sauce, but didn’t get it. Our instincts tend to be the need to react and respond immediately because that’s the expectation we’ve groomed. But it’s actually more important to analyze the landscape first. Papa John’s was likely hopeful that the issue would die without having to take an official stance. They had to weigh whether they’d be stoking fires unnecessarily if they apologized immediately or risk consequences. Of course, radio silence did the opposite and here they are with a CEO and founder stepping down.

2) Provide Clarity. Beyond the official statement provided two weeks later, as well as continuous social media dialogue on official accounts, the incoming CEO was clear on the company’s position and the plan to move forward. He’s started to steer the conversation toward bringing focus back to people and pizza and is already talking about innovation.

3) Stay focused. Upon auditing social media, the team is doing a solid job staying the course with consistent conversation, consistent messages and clarity. They’re focused on distancing the company from the comments and reiterating that they’re not in alignment with the organization. They’re also focused on listening to feedback (and hopefully doing something with that feedback!) The team has a difficult job of not only repairing trust with their customers, but partnerships they have with other organizations who were caught in this mess. 

4) Know when to shift. As an organization, you must be responsive and accountable for all uncomfortable situations you become entangled in, whether you’re directly responsible for them or not. This means honest and transparent dialogue with people across all mediums online and offline in an effort to repair trust. With that said, it’s also important to know when it’s time to make the shift. Papa John’s made their statement, listened, responded and engaged appropriately. Four days later, they resumed the course of sharing their usual social content. Upon auditing, the content is certainly PR-heavy, especially the pinned post about sharing pizza with someone who deserves it. But we all know that this is what you need to do when you’re climbing back from a public PR nightmare! 

papa johns twitter


Social media gives life and legs to stories that years ago would’ve just disappeared with a few good PR tricks. This situation demonstrates how comments offline and online can impact an organization. It also highlights why it’s important to know how you will handle these situations.

Other related blogs:

Social Media and Crisis Communications
An employee you just terminated posts a scathing YouTube video about your organization, what do you do?
Using Social Media During Crisis Situations
Addressing negative social media posts

Do you need help with social media? Give me a buzz!  🙂


Kat Macaulay, BA ADdPR BnC
Kat Macaulay, BA ADdPR BnC
Kat Macaulay is a Marketing Strategist, Writer + Speaker known for her no-nonsense approach to pretty much everything. Using data insights, she helps organizations market more effectively to get results that matter. She's also a high-scoring instructor at Mount Royal University, where she teaches Social Media Analytics and Google Analytics + Marketing Measurement. She holds certifications from Google, as well as Facebook and is currently working toward a specialization in Marketing Analytics and a certificate in Data Science from IBM. When she’s not busy juggling kids, volunteering + work, she’s busy planning her retirement to Cape Breton.