Bimbo Banter

Choose Wisely: How Papa John’s Proved Hiring the Right Crisis Communications Firm Matters

  • Crisis
  • July 31, 2018
  • by Merrie Spaeth

Readers of the BIMBO Memo are familiar with our focus on “bad words” and their tendency to replicate and cause trouble. This is certainly true of Papa John’s founder John Schnatter and his now-infamous use of the “n-word.” Our comment focuses on the background of the situation. News reports described the situation as a “media training exercise” or “a call…on how to prevent negative public relations incidents” (read the accounts here and here). We’re exceptionally familiar with the media training situation, as this is one of our core competencies. Almost always, these trainings begin with role playing an interview that includes the kinds of realistic questions a client potentially could encounter and have to field.

We’ve had some doozy responses during these first encounters. Years ago, we had a client facing serious issues with some key personnel. The client was planning to issue an ultimatum that would certainly become public. The client expressed emphatic confidence that he would prevail. “How can you be so sure?” was the question. The client reached down, pulled a knife out of his boot and said, “We have our methods.” This precipitated a spirited discussion later with the lawyers about what was acceptable behavior. It was determined that the excuse, “We were just exaggerating for impact,” was inappropriate to the point of danger.

Our puzzlement with this whole incident is two-fold. What were they doing holding this kind of conversation on a conference call? How many people participated? Who was in charge?

Second, it’s not clear how a report of what should have been a confidential strategy discussion was leaked to the media. The inference is that the marketing firm Laundry Service was in charge, but it could have come from another source. No matter how it happened, we’re appalled. If it was indeed a true training session, the initial Q&A is supposed to uncover weak spots in a client’s narrative. Professionals owe their clients complete confidentiality. Even if Laundry Service wasn’t the source of the leak to the media, they are still culpable because they should have been in charge of the session and enforced confidentiality.

The lessons to be learned thus far:

- establish the requirement for complete confidentiality at the start
- host training sessions in person and under the guidance of a company with lengthy credentials in preparing executives for challenging encounters
- be aware that some topics and words are so toxic that they can literally derail your career

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