When Minhee Cho made a purchase at a New York City Papa John’s restaurant last week, she never expected that purchase would lead to a racial slur and social web fame, but it happened.

Minhee noticed the slur on her Papa John’s receipt and subsequently tweeted a photo of it along with a simple message: “Hey @PapaJohns just FYI my name isn’t lady chinky eyes.” Almost instantly, the story went viral and the image of the receipt spread across Twitter, through traditional news organizations, and beyond.

Papa John’s response to this appalling employee behavior is instructive for any brands faced with a similar PR nightmare. Take a look at what Papa John’s did right — and did wrong — to make sure you avoid the same mistakes, should a similar situation ever befall your brand.

Branding Blunders and How to Avoid Them

Papa John's Branding Blunder

Papa John's Racial Slur Hits Twitter

This isn’t the first time that unacceptable employee behavior has caused a loud and widespread response on the social web. You might recall an incident when Domino’s employees filmed their inappropriate behavior in a Domino’s kitchen and published those videos on YouTube.

Unfortunately, this likely won’t be the last time such an incident goes viral. That’s why it’s so important for businesses to prioritize branding from within, meaning businesses must educate employees about the brand promise, gain their buy-in, and allow them to live it.

Internal brand building is a requirement for every business. If your employees don’t understand and believe in your brand promise, why should customers? There is a reason why the Zappos employee social media policy is just five words, “Be real and be honest.” It’s because Zappos employees believe and live the brand’s promise of “service first.”

Today, it’s equally important to train employees to show them their behaviors while representing the brand can spread online and live for a very long time. For a franchise business such as Papa John’s, it’s important to develop a set of core behavioral values that represent the brand promise and set expectations for employees.

Does such a policy and a focus on internal brand building guarantee that every employee, particularly in a franchise organization such as Papa John’s, will act in accordance with that policy at all times? Of course not, but it’s essential that internal branding is taught and that the brand promise is integrated into the company culture at all levels to minimize potential problems with employee behavior.

Papa John’s Response: Not What You Might Think

Papa John's Response

The day after Minhee tweeted the picture of her receipt, Papa John’s tweeted a response: “We are very upset by recent receipt issue in New York & sincerely apologize to our customer. Franchise employee involved is being terminated.” That’s a good thing. It’s important to admit mistakes and deal with them in a public, transparent manner on the social web. However, a quick scroll through the Papa John’s Twitter timeline reveals another problem.

As angry people tweeted their own comments about Minhee’s experience, Papa John’s began to tweet responses to individuals addressing them directly using the @reply feature. Unfortunately, the same response with a few word changes or reshuffling appears again and again and again (you get the drift).

It’s hard to believe Papa John’s is sincere when the same canned response is used over and over. It’s the Web 2.0 version of a form letter response, and it’s an example of how not to respond to customer service issues and negative comments about your business and brand online.

Lessons to Take Away

The key to leveraging the business opportunities that social media offers is to develop awareness and belief in your brand promise among a broader audience. Ultimately, these relationships should lead to increased sales, loyalty, and advocacy. The Papa John’s incident with Minhee Cho concerns a volatile topic — racism — and the company’s response needed to be more personable, sensitive, and humanized than tweets published by rote.

Aside from the importance of prioritizing internal branding and education, the other lesson to learn from the Papa John’s racial slur story is this: your response to brand negativity on the social web must be real. You have to be sincere or no one will believe you. In other words, your response to the online conversation could have a more significant effect on your brand and business in the long-term than the original story or incident. Don’t just copy and paste the same response again and again. Be real and be honest or don’t bother.

What are your thoughts on this story? Let us know in the comments below.

Lessons to Take Away

[Image credits: Minhee Cho, Taber Andrew Bain, H. Michael Milley, jcb3388]