Incidents at Starbucks and Papa John’s show importance of crisis communications

Public relations experts say it’s key to make sure your restaurant’s crisis plan is in place and updated—at all times.
Illustration: RB Staff

Papa John’s founder John Schnatter is doing his damnedest to destroy the reputation of the chain he created. The former chairman and CEO has filed suit against Papa John’s and has launched a website in his defense following the end of his tenure as head of the brand, resulting from racist comments he made during a conference call. But the pizza chain isn’t backing down: It’s trying to control the negative sentiment he’s spreading about Papa John’s by publishing a remorseful video on social media and other public outreach.

This and other recent incidents from national chain restaurants are case studies in what to do—and what not to do—when it comes to crisis public relations, experts say. And it should serve as a reminder to all restaurants, big and small, that a detailed crisis communications plan should be in place and be updated at least every year.

“It certainly is a ‘pay me now’ or ‘pay me later’ scenario,” says David Oates of San Diego-based Stalwart Communications, which offers crisis public relations for restaurants and other businesses. “This is a really good lesson for other restaurants to look at their organization and see what they’ve done.”

In April, Starbucks drew protestors at units around the country after two African-American men were arrested in a Philadelphia unit after employees accused them of trespassing. The coffee giant later closed all U.S. units for a half day for racial-bias training.

Both brands missed the mark in responding quickly to the incidents, say those who work in crisis PR.


Starbucks’ response came a day late, says Jamie Izaks, president of Deerfield, Ill.-based All Points Public Relations. Plus, Izaks says, “The initial reaction was not sincere or authentic enough for a brand of that magnitude,” adding that the first response was watered down with corporate-speak and not enough genuine sentiment.

And Papa John’s needs to be more transparent in detailing how it plans to change its leadership and its corporate culture, he says. “They need to consider this a long-term plan,” Izaks says. “When you’re in a situation where business has been hit that hard and you’re literally a case study on PR crisis, you need to be thinking long-term, a 24-month plan to recoup perception.” That two-year plan would include a wide range of communications, from grassroots PR to national advertising to a move to support organizations that align with a revamped mission.

Key communications

When sharing information in the wake of a PR crisis, the order of communications matters, Oates says. It may seem that sending a press release apology to the media is a good first step, but it’s not. Employees should always be looped in before anyone else, he says, using the most effective mode of communication to reach them, whether it’s emails, texts or social media.

“Employees are your frontline communicators,” Oates says. “Your employees are the frontline marketing corporate communications people.”

These frontline workers should be told the truth about any crisis situation, as well as being coached in the most effective ways to communicate that narrative, along with the company’s proactive stance, to customers.

After employees are on the same page, a restaurant brand should speak directly to its customers through social media and targeted campaigns that are sincere and remorseful. Then, it’s time to spread the message to investors and media through formal statements and press releases, he says.

Papa John’s released a statement the same day news of Schnatter’s racial slur broke. But it wasn’t enough, says Jennifer Donahoe, a public relations director with Planit in Baltimore. “Despite the swift action, the brand’s message … severely lacked care,” Donahoe says. “The single biggest predictor of reputation harm in a crisis? The perception that you don’t care.”

It took Starbucks a bit longer to respond, but the coffee giant’s CEO Kevin Johnson appeared in a heartfelt video in response to the arrests and later met with the two men to apologize in person. The actions, she says, humanized the brand and added authenticity to his words.

“Typically, brands who manage a crisis effectively not only regain shareholder value but will increase it within a year of the crisis,” she says.

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