Pizza Chief Steps Down Over NFL Speech; Should Companies Just Stuff It?

By William Vogeler, Esq. on December 22, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Football players kneel during the national anthem; you criticize the NFL for mishandling it; and people don't buy pizza.

That's the reality that led the founder of Papa John's Pizza to step down as chief executive officer. John Schnatter blamed slowing sales on the outcry surrounding NFL players kneeling during the national anthem.

If the head cook thinks like that, maybe it is time to get out of the kitchen. And if you are the general counsel, you might want to say something about it.

Time to Stuff It?

Schnatter, who frequently appears in Papa John's commericals with NFL players, said league leadership hurt his company by not solving the anthem problem. He said customers had a negative view of the pizza chain because of its connection to the NFL.

The company later apologized for his comments, and vowed to work with the league and its owners. It is a high-profile example of what can happen when a business exercises too much free speech.

A wise lawyer said: sometimes it's better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt. FindLaw's George Khoury said that applies to company advertising as well.

"As many companies have learned the hard way, being on the wrong side of a controversy can quickly cut into a company's bottom line," he wrote.

Think Before You Speak

General counsel, whether acting as a spokesperson for a company or guiding its executives, need to know some do's and dont's when dealing with the media. That includes:

  • Do talk to reporters
  • Do prepare your quotes
  • Don't breach confidences
  • Don't assume anything is off the record

Schnatter, the face of the pizza company, broke another rule when he criticized NFL owners. Don't bite the hand that feeds you.

It's pizza, and it's definitely not football.

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