Papa John's: An ethical dilemma for PR firms

One under-reported aspect of this saga is the ethical dilemma raised for PR professionals.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

There’s more fallout  from the disclosure this month that Papa John’s founder, former CEO, and chairman of the board John Schnatter used an offensive term on a media training conference call. Following Forbes’ coverage of the controversy, Schnatter stepped down as chairman, his likeness is being removed from Papa John’s marketing materials, and the company has directed him to stop talking to the news media.

One under-reported aspect of this saga is the ethical dilemma raised for PR professionals. What are our obligations when confronted with illegal, unethical, or simply offensive behavior by clients, discovered while providing counsel or conducting media- or crisis-training sessions? Is leaking to the news media ever an acceptable remedy?

Loyalty to clients is among the values of the Public Relations Society of America code of ethics, which calls for PR professionals to protect the privacy rights of clients, organizations, and individuals by safeguarding confidential information. In keeping with these provisions at Linhart PR, we believe PR professionals have an ethical obligation to keep confidential any statements made or information shared by executives during media or crisis training, which typically involve role-playing, practice interviews, and discussion of what-if situations.

Does that mean PR professionals have no recourse when we observe something of concern during client interactions? Must we avert our eyes, swallow our scruples, and simply go along? Absolutely not. PR professionals have several potential courses of action that are consistent with the PRSA code of ethics, without requiring any of us to compromise our principles.

  1. Be cautious about taking on controversial clients or working at controversial organizations in the first place. If you have reason to believe the values of a company or executive are not consistent with your values, stay away.
  2. End the client relationship, moving quickly if necessary, while honoring contractual notice requirements. At least three firms that have provided communications and marketing services and counsel to Papa John’s have resigned their roles in recent weeks.
  3. If concerns raised during client interactions are sufficiently grave, escalate the issue to the company’s chief communications officer, if that role exists – and if that executive isn’t part of the problem.
  4. The ultimate course in a scenario of high concern, especially if the CEO is involved, is to inform the company’s lead independent director or chair of the audit committee, if it’s a public company. If the client is not a public company, see number two above.

Society isn’t well-served when companies fear to seek PR counsel or services, including media and crisis training, because they worry about leaks to journalists or other breaches of trust. When that happens, companies miss out on the valuable advice PR professionals provide to shape responsible corporate behavior: what to do, as well as what to say.

The Papa John’s story has real consequences for franchisees, employees, shareholders, and suppliers. The more we learn about a reportedly "toxic culture" at the company, the better we can understand the desire of PR professionals to disassociate themselves from its controversial founder. And yet, if ever a company needed reputation-recovery counsel from a truly trusted advisor, it’s this one.

Trust is the necessary foundation for client-counselor relationships that align company and executive behavior with societal norms and expectations. As PR professionals, we need to earn that trust every day, by balancing obligations to our clients with the dictates of our own conscience and our profession’s ethical code.

Paul Raab is managing partner at Linhart PR.

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