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Brand WTF of the Week: Papa John playing the batsh*t blame game

Papa John’s founder John Schnatter has tried to shift the blame off him and onto his ad agency and even Kanye West, sliding his company’s brand into an 800-degree oven.

Brand WTF of the Week: Papa John playing the batsh*t blame game
[Photo: JB Lacroix/WireImage/Getty Images]

American business has never been short of eccentrically offensive business owners (See: Henry Ford, antisemitism, and the Third Reich). But at this point, there is an established playbook when one of their country-club jokes or off-color opinions somehow squeaks by the PR minions and into the media. Apologize, make some sort of amends (rehab, anger management, sensitivity training, sizable charity donation, etc.), then disappear for a while until your company’s brand image and stock price eventually recover.

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But now there’s a newer school of leadership training, of which a primary pillar is the ability to staunchly refuse personal responsibility for mistakes or missteps. In fact, the modus operandi is not only refusal of acknowledgment, but also aggressively advocate a strict policy of blame-shifting and finger-pointing in any other direction. Given this week’s news cycle, let’s call it The Donald J. Trump School for Leaders Who Don’t Apologize Good. Its newest graduate is Papa John’s founder and chairman John Schnatter, who’s been spewing this strategy all week magna cum laude.

Last week, Forbes reported that on a conference call in May, Schnatter used the N-word during a conversation about his statements in November 2017, when he waded into the debate over national anthem protests in the NFL and partly blamed the league’s response for his slowing pizza sales. He was asked how he would distance himself from racist groups online and responded by downplaying the significance of his NFL statement, allegedly saying, “Colonel Sanders called blacks n—–s” and never faced public backlash, effectively forgetting that he’s not actually living in the 1930s Jim Crow South.

Since then, Schnatter has resigned his position as chairman at the behest of the company’s board, but on second thought, he now calls that move a mistake. He sent a letter to the Papa John’s board over the weekend defending himself, and criticizing the board for forcing his resignation before conducting a full investigation into the Forbes story. And in a TV interview with Kentucky’s WLKY on Friday, he accused his ad agency Laundry Service of extortion, claiming it tried to blackmail the company for $6 million to keep quiet about his use of the racial slur. The agency denies that claim, calling it “disparaging and outrageous.” Schnatter also claimed that Laundry Service encouraged the brand to work with Kanye West but Schnatter refused because of West’s use of the N-word in his lyrics, which is just so rich that one can barely stand it.

All of this is to say that Papa John’s, the multibillion-dollar public company, is in a pretty big mess. But it wouldn’t be as gargantuan of a clusterf**k if Papa John himself wasn’t the face of the brand. The old Apology Playbook applies even more when a company’s leader is also its mascot and primary spokesperson. It’s the difference between a McDonald’s executive making this mistake, and Ronald McDonald himself using a racial slur. Both are objectively bad, but the latter has more impact on the brand overall. John Schnatter is Papa John, and he still owns 30% of the company, and by doubling and tripling down on this situation he’s essentially throwing his own money–along with Papa John’s investors–in an 800-degree oven.

This debacle isn’t going away anytime soon, and the longer it drags out, the more Papa John’s board will be thinking about extricating itself from Schnatter’s shadow with a complete rebrand. Maybe Papa’s? Or how about PJ’s? Is that taken? Either way, they know no one wants to eat Racist Douche Pizza.

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About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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