I would be incredibly surprised if you hadn’t heard about NFL players protesting police brutality by now. However, what you might have missed is that Papa John’s Pizza – a major NFL advertiser -  has blamed the protesters for a  decrease in sales. While Papa John’s has every right as an advertiser to comment on the recent protests, doing so isn’t a smart communications strategy. In addressing their sales slump this way, the company turned what should have been a fairly standard investor relations problem into a full-blown brand crisis.

Wading Into a National Protest:

Whenever you engage with a protest you must be careful, there is almost always a highly motivated and socially active population that will disagree with you. For Papa John’s, the level of caution should have been extreme as the NFL protests are nationwide. But Papa John’s ignored caution and injected themselves into the debate. In doing so Papa John’s focused the energy of the protest on them. This energy resulted in a major social media attack against the company, which in turn caused traditional media to pick up the story. Because of the media amplification of the story, those who don’t care about the NFL protest heard about Papa John’s slow sales: the story the company was trying to address in the first place.

Blaming Everyone Else:

Think about the last time blaming someone else worked well for you. It probably never did. Yet that was the strategy Papa John’s used to explain their lagging sales. While it’s true that pulling some of their ads probably hurt sales, by blaming everyone else Papa John’s only made their situation worse. Their statement shifted the sales challenge from an investor and stockholder relations problem to a full brand reputation crisis. Additionally, the company’s statement only shifted blame, and never stated how Papa John’s would address the problem. This makes the company look at best immature and at worst incompetent.

Escalating The Problem:

In crisis communications there are two main strategies to addressing a problem: engage with it to set the record straight and risk escalating the problem; or stay silent and let the problem peter out. As Papa John’s challenge was how to explain a sales slump to its investors they couldn’t stay silent, but they did have two options. The first was to engage with the challenge quietly as an investor relations issue by addressing how things will change next quarter. The second was to come out hard and try and explain away the problem. By choosing option two the company escalated a potentially challenging issue into a full-blown brand reputation problem, and opened themselves up to attacks from competitors (here and here). In choosing the wrong crisis communication plan, a negative event spiraled into a brand catastrophe.

When all is said and done, Papa John’s is a case study of what not to do in crisis communications. By learning from their mistakes, you can make better decisions in order to actually protect your brand in a crisis situation.