Yesterday, a journalist discovered that the receipt for her pizza from a Papa John's franchise in New York referred to her as "lady chinky eyes." What ensued was a storm in a teacup that teaches valuable lessons on public response when a franchise employee makes a gaffe.
This weekend, one Harlem resident got her pizza order with a side of racism.
Saturday, Minhee Cho Tweeted a photo of her receipt from Papa John's in which her name was specified as "lady chinky eyes" with the notation, "Hey @PapaJohns just FYI my name isn't 'lady chinky eyes'."
And this would have been an ideal case of swift and appropriate crisis response, but conflicting messages quickly arose. As much as the corporate office speedily addressed the gaffe, the local franchise seems to be brushing the whole incident off as one oversensitive customer making a fuss over an unintended gaffe by a well-meaning employee. A manager named Jerome reportedly told the Post:
“I think the lady [Ms. Cho] put it out there just to get some attention—some people like that type of attention. I truly don’t think it’s fair. It’s been taking up all our time. It’s been very disruptive.”
Since Ms. Cho is the community manager for an investigative journalism site and the victim of the racist remark, it's pretty fair to say that yes, she did post the Tweet to make others aware of the unacceptable behavior. And as Christoforo of Ocean Marketing discovered last week, yes, it IS disruptive to be called out for your bad behavior. And one could argue that racism is a tad disruptive as well. I wonder if Jerome would like being called "fat bald slob" on his receipt. (Note: I've no idea what he looks like.)
Unfortunately, Jerome and an assistant managers gave interviews to the press, undercutting the timely and sensitive apologies by corporate headquarters. Yes, it gets worse:
An assistant manager at the store told us that the teen meant no harm with the slur she used to identify Cho: "We're all of different races here in this store. So she didn't mean any harm, didn't mean to stereotype against her, to discriminate against her, but that's how she took it." Jerome agreed with her, saying employees use slang to identify customers: “It’s a busy place, and it was a way to identify her and her order. You know, we do stuff like that sometimes. We’ll write ‘the lady with the blue eyes’ or ‘the guy in the green shirt.’ ”
While I'm a huge fan of the Avenue Q song "Everyone's a little bit racist," which brings our racist proclivities into the open and encourages acknowledgement that the best of us do make judgments based on race, I don't believe that we live in a world where one can make a racist comment and not get taken to task for it. "I didn't mean anything by it" is the call of the bigot, and it's a poor excuse for bad behavior. Better to own up and say, "I'm so sorry. I guess that was insensitive of me."
I don't mean to bash on this poor employee. She was reportedly 16 and undoubtedly making minimum wage. There is only so much training a company can do and so many expectations a company can have of such a young, underpaid employee. So what lessons are organizations to take away from this kerfuffle?
Coordinate the message
The racism question aside, the PR could have been better coordinated here. Papa John's had a good message going out--until the local managers were interviewed and chose to defend the employee instead of making a humble apology.
Frank Reed of Marketing Pilgrim suggests that there isn't really much organizations can do to prevent behavior like this. Would additional screening for racism or additional training on attitude adjustment will help the underpaid, under-20 crowd? Probably not, but that's not really the issue.
Mistakes will happen. Random acts of insenstivity and racism are hard to avoid, especially with independently-run franchises that tend to employ the young and inexperienced at low wages. I don't believe this incident is Papa John's fault in the slightest; the corporate office address the issue promptly on Facebook and Twitter, with a sincere apology and termination of employment for the employee.
However, what can be avoided is conflicting messages during crisis communications. Papa John's corporate did an excellent job of responding swiftly and sincerely on Twitter and Facebook. However, the managers who were interviewed for the Gothamist article above were in desperate need of some coaching. Saying that the employee "didn't mean any harm" and blaming Ms. Cho for taking the remark as racist when it wasn't intended that way comes across as backpedaling and minimizing, and claiming that Ms. Cho only posted the remark to get attention all come across as defensive tactics, which are rarely useful in crisis communications. Jerome's comments seriously undermined the effective public apology made by Papa John's corporate.
The takeaway here is that in such a crisis, national and local representatives should be coordinated. The local managers should have been instructed to admit fault and offer sincere apologies without commenting on the nature of Ms. Cho's posting or attempting to defend the employee in question.
What do you think? What is your takeaway from this?