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Online Trends

Published September 27th 2018

Here’s How the Papa John’s – John Schnatter Debacle Is Playing out Online

The React team has been watching conversation around Papa John's carefully. Here's how the pizza chain's terrible few months have been discussed on social

Having been ousted as CEO and chairman of Papa John’s, John Schnatter (who remains the largest shareholder) is not giving up his fight to “save” the company. The problem with that is, he’s the reason the company has been through the metaphorical wringer these past few months.

Two events in particular over the last year have sparked negativity around Papa John’s. Firstly, Schnatter blamed poor pizza sales on NFL anthem protests, a move that caused a huge backlash and is largely understood as the reason he resigned as CEO. Secondly, he used a racial slur on a conference call – something he apologized for and then resigned from his role as chairman of the company.

With Schnatter, to some extent, out of the picture (like I said, he’s still the largest shareholder), Papa John’s is looking to fix its damaged image. It’s not going to be an easy job, considering Schnatter’s face and name features so prominently in the branding. You could go as far as to say he is the brand – something he stresses on his website which opens with the phrase “I am Papa John.”

One of the company’s next moves is rumored to be the removal of the apostrophe from “Papa John’s”, making it “Papa Johns.” It was news we were made aware of when a Brandwatch Signal set up around the company dropped into the team’s inbox over the weekend.

Whether or not dropping the apostrophe will go any lengths to distance the brand from the man who created it is up for debate, but that’s not what we want to discuss here.

Instead, we want to perform a kind of social data biopsy on what’s happened so far to see what we can learn from reactions to the two stories we mentioned above.

We’ll discuss the volume of conversation around the stories, the different ways tweeters and news outlets have treated them and finally how the stories have impacted Papa John’s visual mentions.

Which story created the most noise?

Obviously, neither of the incidents are good for Papa John’s – especially when between them they’ve contributed to around a third of the brand’s online conversation over the last year.

But which caused more discussion? We looked at public conversations across the web in the last year to see which story caused the most online mentions.

It turned out the NFL story caused a lot more individual mentions than Schnatter’s terrible conference call conduct.

Perhaps this comes due to the nature of the two incidents – the comments on NFL protests were debated, whereas use of the N-word feels more of an open-and-shut case.

News and views

We were interested to see how the average tweeter was discussing all the Papa John’s drama compared to the media, and found that between the two stories we mentioned above there was a significant difference in how they were treated.

To do this analysis, we simply took the total number of tweeted mentions as well as the total number of news articles we tracked about those two incidents within two days of them breaking and compared how big each reaction was. Please note that we are not comparing the volume of tweets vs news stories – instead we’re making comparisons within each medium. For example, the number of news stories for the first incident is compared with the number of news stories for the second.

As you can see, news outlets appeared to pay far more attention to the second incident, while tweeters paid more attention to the first.

Again, perhaps this is down to the nature of the incidents. Twitter is where debate happens. Meanwhile, a CEO using a racial slur is a big story that doesn’t require much discussion around whether or not it’s appropriate.

Papa John’s visual conversation

A large part of online conversation around a brand might not “mention” it at all. Instead, the brand will be featured within an image – and we’ve found that huge chunks (up to around 90%) of brand-related conversation might not mention them at all in the accompanying text.

With that in mind, we thought we’d take a browse through Papa John’s visual mentions on Twitter and Instagram to see if the stories we are concerned with here would crop up organically.

The answer is yes – within both Twitter and Instagram conversations, on the first page of scrolling, we found references to the racial slur Schnatter used. These mentions appeared alongside images of Papa John’s various sponsored sports events and pizza boxes.

Schnatter’s face was hugely present in the most engaged with images – another sign of just how ubiquitous it is with the brand.

What’s next for Papa John’s?

Detaching itself on a linguistic and visual level from a founder whose reputation is in the gutter is going to be a nightmare for Papa John’s. His face is everywhere, his name is everywhere, his actions are dominating conversation around the brand.

If the brand is to move forward without Schnatter it’s going to need to shut him up and make changes that go beyond a missing apostrophe.

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