What Should Papa John’s Do Now to Address their Moral—and PR– Crisis?


Prudence Gourguechon, Principal, invantage

Papa John’s Pizza company has been embroiled in an ongoing crisis for months now. It began last November when their founder, president and the face of the company John Shnatter blamed declining sales on black NFL players “taking the knee” during the national anthem. Papa John’s was fired by the NFL as the official pizza of the league and quickly replaced by Pizza Hut, which saw an increase in sales in the last quarter of 2017.

The company then hired a media consultancy firm to give Schnatter training in racial sensitivity. His use of the n-word during the training session as well as his making the startling comment that when he was growing up in Indiana blacks were dragged behind cars was leaked to Forbes and the company’s board quickly asked Schnatter to resign. He did, acknowledging that he had made those remarks and saying “there is no place for racism in America.” Days later Schnatter said he regretted his resignation. Meanwhile, the company is reported to have created a committee to look into its diversity efforts.

This is not a matter of political correctness. Once again what we are seeing here is a profound failure of empathy on Schnatter’s part. His reversal on his resignation seems to suggest a lack of understanding about what if anything he did wrong and what to do about it.

Failures of eampthy are are not uncommon in the corporate world and can lead to rapid and catastrophic losses in company value and customer loyalty. The necessity for empathy and the implications of empathy failures are important for communications professionals to understand. I’ve written elsewhere on the psychology of recent corporate apologies fromUnited Airlines, Facebook and Starbucks.

Essentially, empathy is the ability to stand in another person’s shoes and fully understand how your actions and speech are experienced by them. I would argue that it is virtually impossible for a white person, even the best intentioned, to understand how people of color experience corporate actions and messaging that relates to race.

Empathy allows a corporate leader (or her communications proxy) to issue a meaningful and effective apology.

This needs to include:

Taking full responsibility for what went wrong Expressing a convincing understanding of the negative effects of what happened accompanied by sincere regret. Stating what you plan to do to avoid a repetition and address underlying problems that led to the negative event. Schnatter’s statement fell short.

Schnatter said in his initial apology “There is no place for racism in America”. The problem is that racism pervades the experience and biases of just about every American. As much as we would like it not to be true, racism has a solid place in America. The challenge is to acknowledge that and know what to do about it.

So, what should Papa John’s do next?

  • Issue a more comprehensive apology on behalf of the company, taking responsibility, expressing true regret and laying out what they plan to do not just about Schnatter but about racism?
  • Hire an African American consultant to help them understand the impact on the balck community of Schnatter’s behavior, beginning last fall. Even before its crisis with the Philadelphia store, Starbucks had engaged former Attorney General Eric Holder to help them with diversity issues.
  • Use that consultant to find ways engage with the balck community in helpful (philanthropic) ways.
  • Acknowledge the company’s shortcomings regarding diversity and inclusion.
  • Look at their board, their communications professionals and their senior executives and make sure that there is real racial and gender diversity within these groups Initiate an ongoing diversity and inclusion effort to engineer processes for talent recruitment, promotion and leader mentoring that eliminate bias.