To Panic or Not To Panic: What to Do (and Not Do) During Crisis Communications

Reba Liddy
4 min readMar 20, 2021


Crises can spur at any time. There are times when a communications team can plan and get ahead of a response, due to the understanding that a controversial story may come out in the near future. And then there are other times when the communications team has to respond promptly to an urgent issue. In either circumstance, the team should have a crisis management plan. Kristen Baker, a writer for HubSpot, defines a crisis management plan as “the process of preparing for and managing any disruptive or unexpected emergency situations that affect your business, stakeholders, employees, customers, and revenue. Crisis management is an important component of public relations.”

There are many elements and questions that need to be answered when developing a crisis management plan, but the biggest questions are: who will be the representative respond in a crisis, what is the response, and how should the company respond? In order to get a better understanding of what to do (and more importantly, what not to do) we will look at real-world examples, where we can see failed communications in Papa John’s Pizza and a successful management plan with KFC’s FCK Bucket.

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Better Pizza, Better Luck Next Time

On July 11, 2018, John Schnatter, the founder of Papa John’s Pizza, Forbes reported that he was caught using a racial slur in May during a conference call among the company’s executives and a marketing agency. Prior to the call, Schnatter stepped down as CEO in December 2017 due to controversial statements regarding the National Football League, but still was involved in the pizza chain’s operations. Allegedly, the call was to prepare Schnatter from making further public gaffes.

During the call, “Schnatter was asked how he would distance himself from racist groups online. He responded by downplaying the significance of his NFL statement. ‘Colonel Sanders called blacks n — — -s,’ Schnatter said, before complaining that Sanders never faced public backlash.” As a response to this, the third-largest pizza chain had to go into crisis management mode.

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This is a unique case in itself because as previously stated, Schnatter has been detrimental to the company for some time. Specifically in this case, the new acting CEO of Papa John’s released an open letter in response to the Forbes’ article. In the letter, it was decided to fully remove Schnatter’s involvement as chairman. He added, “racism and any insensitive language, no matter what the context simply cannot — and will not — be tolerated at any level of our company.” A week later the company’s official Twitter account stated that the company has hired experts to change the culture.

And finally, in August, the company posted a video, where it acknowledges that it heard the c̵r̵i̵t̵i̵c̵i̵s̵m̵s̵ suggestions and plans to better. However, the company didn’t apologize for the insensitive comments. With sensitive cases like this, the company has to continuously apologize for the wrongdoings done by a representative on a company. We saw who responded — the new acting CEO — and what they responded with — changing the culture to not accept racism, but it needed to offer continuous transparency on how they are changing the culture.

The founder of the pizza chain — and essentially the face of the company — said disparaging remarks about a group of people, as a response, they needed to double down on anti-racist and anti-discriminatory sentiments. In my opinion, that’s when they should have taken the time to learn why NFL players kneel to protest police brutality along with racial inequity in America.

KFC’s FCK Bucket is Pretty Good

There once was a time where Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) ran out of…chicken. Jenna Amatulli, a writer for Huffington Post, added that, “KFC took out full-page advertisements in United Kingdom newspapers on Friday to apologize for the fast-food chain’s chicken shortage this week. The tongue-in-cheek ads featuring an empty chicken bucket emblazoned with FCK immediately won fans for clever humor.”

KFC’s print ad ran in The Sun and Metro; credit: Haymarket Media Group Ltd.

KFC owned up to its shortcomings, offered a humorous apology, and posted it everywhere — from its website to advertisements in local newspapers. The ad, which featured the picture above, included in the text, “‘A chicken restaurant without any chicken. It’s not ideal. It’s been a hell of a week, but we’re making progress, and every day more and more fresh chicken is being delivered to our restaurants.’” And they provided a website to keep consumers updated with the chicken shortage.

This crisis response plan was swift, and it didn’t need a spokesperson to relay the message. They made sure to tackle any frequently asked questions on their social media account. And “they kept on top of the news by answering questions via social media almost daily.” The fast food restaurant chain offered transparency on why there were chicken shortages, and didn’t make any excuses. They included how they are handling the problem and continued to provide updates. This campaign did everything right: it showed how humor can get this fast food restaurant out of a cluckin’ disaster.



Reba Liddy

Reba Liddy is a marketing and communications professional with nearly a decade of experience. She has her MA in Public Relations