Christen Carter


3 May 2012


The Case of the Cry Baby

            When you think about LeBron James a couple names come to mind; MVP, King James, The Chosen One, but not Cry Baby. Well, a local Papa JohnÕs franchise called one of the most famous players in the NBA just that, a ÒCry Baby.Ó

            In 2008, LeBron James was one of the most liked players in the NBA. This was before ÒThe DecisionÓ, before he broke the heart of Clevelanders by moving to South Beach. At that time LeBron James was to Cleveland as Yankee Stadium is to New York. They adored him; after all he was native to the state of Ohio. Born in the city of Akron, which is only about 40 miles away from Cleveland. So by calling this man a Cry Baby you are not only insulting him, but an entire city.

 ÒGood or bad, a local franchiseÕs independent actions can be attributed to a companyÕs national marketing efforts,Ó Nicole Zerillo wrote in an article in PR Week shortly after this incident. Papa JohnÕs learned that the actions of a few within your organization can lead the whole company into a crisis, get an entire city mad at you and have an entire fan base wanting to boycott you.

The Issue

            On Friday, May 2, 2008, a local franchise of Papa JohnÕs in Washington D.C., decides to start distributing t-shirts referring to NBA star LeBron James as a ÒCry BabyÓ and then put a Papa JohnÕs logo on the shirt for game six of the 2008 NBA playoffs. The t-shirts were distributed before and during game, in which the Washington Wizards were hosting the Cleveland Cavaliers. The shirts were in response to Wizards Brendan HaywoodÕs jab at James for complaining about being fouled hard by opponents. The shirt initially did not get much attention until John Eick of posted about it, the next day and had Cleveland fans rallying against the chain. Then the national media got a hold of the story. Cavalier fans and Ohio residents alike were outraged that Papa JohnÕs, an international company, would promote a t-shirt ridiculing their hometown superstar as a ÒCry BabyÓ. Fans called for the boycotting of all Papa JohnÕs restaurants and their stores received about 200 complaints during the weekend. There as a Boycott Papa JohnÕs website developed and a Facebook group named, Cavs fans will never eat Papa JohnÕs again.


            Papa JohnÕs has maintained open public relations practices throughout its years. It has a partnership with the global PR firm, Fleishman-Hillard. Papa JohnÕs has developed some of the most successful PR campaigns such as, owners of Camaros get free pizza campaign, after Papa JohnÕs founder John Schnatter bought back his 1971 Chevy Camaro, the one he originally sold in order to start the pizza business. Also, the ÒWhatÕs Next? Text!Ó Campaign, in which it became the first national pizza chain to offer text-message ordering. Doug Terfehr, VP at Fleishman, said their success can be attributed to their staff. Terfehr stated, ÒWe are fortunate to have a pretty deep team that could handle the multiple projects, and a very skilled PR team at Papa JohnÕs that is used to working at a fast pace.Ó This effective implementation of public relations strategies is what saved them during the LeBron/Cry Baby scandal. Papa JohnÕs knew its strengths and was prepared to handle a crisis.

            Papa JohnÕs mission is to create superior brand loyalty, take pride in ownership in building the long-term value of the Papa JohnÕs Brand and exceptional customer and community service. Its commitment to customer satisfaction is what helped Papa JohnÕs during the LeBron/Cry Baby scandal.

            The only real PR problems that Papa JohnÕs has faced are with their franchisees and employees. Franchises account for 5 percent of all establishments in the U.S., according to an Industrial and Labor Review done at Cornell University. There are an estimated 1,500 franchise companies operating in the U.S. doing business through 360,000 retail units. In a franchise, the independent franchisee sells a product or service using the brand name or operating system of the franchisor, typically in return for a lump sum payments and annual royalty fee. The Pizza Industry has a history in which, the actions of one franchise can affect the whole company. For example, in 2009, two Dominos Pizza employees uploaded a video to YouTube where it showed one of them in a DominoÕs store and in a DominoÕs uniform sticking cheese up his nose and then putting it on a sandwich that was allegedly sold to a customer. Also, Papa JohnÕs itself, in 2012, when an employee typed a racial slur Òlady chinky eyesÓ on a receipt to Minhee Cho, an Asian-American. Despite this, Papa JohnÕs says it is committed to the development and training of employees.

The Plan Overview

            The overall strategic goal of this case was to build back relationships with hundreds of LeBron James fans and Ohio residents and to prevent an entire fan base from boycotting Papa JohnÕs restaurants.

            The objectives of the case were simple:

1.     To apologize to the City of Cleveland, Cavalier fans and LeBron James in a timely manner.

2.     To show that Papa JohnÕs appreciates the City of Cleveland and Northern Ohio residents.

3.     To focus on customer behavior and what can be done to satisfy the customer.

4.     To re-build relationships with lost customers.

5.     To prevent fans from boycotting Papa JohnÕs Restaurants.

6.     To build customer satisfaction at all Papa JohnÕs franchises across Ohio.


Papa JohnÕs met these objectives by issuing an official apology to Cleveland Cavalier fans and LeBron James on Sunday May 4, two days after the game in Washington D.C. against the Wizards. In this statement, distributed to Cleveland and northern Ohio media, Papa JohnÕs stated that it was very sorry for the circulation of the unauthorized t-shirt with their logo on it. ÒIt was an isolated incident by a single operator in Washington D.C. We have no disrespect for LeBron and the Cavaliers,Ó said Papa JohnÕs spokesman Chris Sternberg. Also, Papa JohnÕs, a Wizards sponsor for years, acted quickly to calm offended fans. The company donated $10,000 to the Cavalier Youth Fund, an additional $10,000 to the LeBron James Family Foundation, and sold residents of Cleveland and northern Ohio a large, one-topping pizzas for 23 cents on May 8. The 23 cents paid homage to JamesÕ jersey number. Some 86 Papa JohnÕs store across Northern Ohio offered the large 23 cent pizza. Papa JohnÕs locations across northeast Ohio were prepared to sell more than 900 pizzas.

Dealing with this situation required effective crisis communication. Papa JohnÕs spoke with one clear voice through spokesman, Chris Sternberg. Also, Papa JohnÕs instituted their crisis communication plan and objectives in a timely manner. Papa JohnÕs had an experienced PR firm, Fleishman-Hillard, helping them with this crisis. Trained PR professionals that knew what must be done during a sudden crisis, which helped them in the end result.

Papa JohnÕs followed the PRSA Code of Professional Standard specifically when dealing with advocacy and the communication process. They were open to communication with the media and Cavalier fans. Papa JohnÕs used two-way communication to deal with this crisis. Papa JohnÕs considered the viewpoint of Cavalier fans and Ohioans. It made sure that what they needed to do to repair relationships was in the best interest of Clevelanders. These are sports fans that Papa JohnÕs was dealing with. Sports fans bleed their team colors and worship their superstars. There is a reason the word fan comes from fanatic, these people are passionate about their team. The pizza company mainly targeted its communication and tactics on Cleveland and northern Ohio. They communicated to the local media that Papa JohnÕs meant no disrespect to the Cavaliers, cared about Ohio customers and that they would show their good faith towards them.


Papa JohnÕs through the 23 cent pizza promotion managed to sell 172,000 pizzas in the Cleveland, Ohio-area. Cavalier fans formed lines so long at the participating Papa JohnÕs store to get the 23 cent pizza that police stood nearby to make sure people did not get rowdy. This plan of the 23 cent pizza worked wonders for Papa JohnÕs. One because it was a good deal and not many people can turn down a good pizza at a cheap price. It also showed the dedication Papa JohnÕs had to its customers, that is was sorry for the ÒCry BabyÓ t-shirts and the fact it upset an entire city. ÒPapa JohnÕs cause marketing tie-in speaks well to any audience,Ó says Dave Fogelson, Octagon Worldwide Director of Worldwide Communications and PR. The nonprofit donations were also a good move. It showed that Papa JohnÕs appreciated the Cavalier fans and Ohio residents. Papa JohnÕs actions created a sense of good will between the pizza restaurant and Cavalier fans.

Papa JohnÕs appealed to the self-interest of Cavalier fans by doing the 23 cent pizza promotion and non-profit donations, which is an important PR maxim. They had a good understanding of their subject as well. Sports fans love pizza, especially cheap pizza that is only 23 cents in homage to their favorite athlete. Papa JohnÕs got involved in the decision process and their messages were related to their goals. For example, they executed their plan in a timely manner and came up with an idea that would re-build customer relationships, such as the 23 cent pizza promotion and non-profit donations. Papa JohnÕs handled the crisis well and did everything they could do to satisfy the customer. The overall goal was met through implementation of their objectives and good communication. Papa JohnÕs had re-built relationships with Cavalier fans through its dedication to bring customer satisfaction to the Cleveland area, which helped avoid a boycott and turned the incident into a benefit. The only thing that should have drawn attention, but did not was employee satisfaction. Papa JohnÕs needs to work on its relationship with its employees, so an incident like this and the one in 2012 never happens again.

This case is important because it shows us how an organization is supposed to act in the midst of a crisis. It shows the profession how an organization can maintain its customers by acting quickly and professionally. Papa JohnÕs followed good strategic planning and crisis management that all public relations professionals should know and follow. This case can be a good learning lesson to future employers that your employees are the heart of your organization and what they do can affect the whole company.