John Schnatter isn’t accustomed to the kind of press he’s been getting over the last year or so. For more than a decade, most people knew Schnatter as “Papa John,” the smiling everyman who was committed entirely to bringing you “better ingredients and better pizza.” He appeared in several commercials with superstar athletes like Peyton Manning and others, helping make Papa John’s, the pizza shop he started in a closet more than thirty years ago, a household name.
Over the past year, though, Schnatter has become a household name for an entirely different set of reasons.
Last year, Schnatter made headlines when he blamed his company’s slumping sales on the NFL’s anthem controversy. Competitors like Pizza Hut leaped on those comments, taking the opportunity to point out they were doing just fine. Schnatter was accused of making excuses and blame-shifting, and the chatter got so loud and consistent that he ended up stepping down as CEO.
Now, Schnatter has resigned as chairman of the pizza company he founded after admitting to using a racial slur during a conference call. According to multiple media reports, Schnatter was on a conference call discussing media training, when he mentioned that brand representatives like Colonel Sanders never got in trouble for using the “n-word.” Except, he used the epithet, not the socially acceptable replacement term.
Almost immediately, the marketing firm representing Papa John’s severed ties with the company. Schnatter’s ouster came soon after. In a statement to the media, Schnatter took responsibility for his comments, saying “regardless of the context, I apologize …” for using “inappropriate and hurtful” language.
As the public began learning of the incident, it was subsequently announced that Schnatter would also resign from the board of trustees at the University of Louisville.
That’s a lot of negative press in a relatively short amount of time, which leads us to the PR consequences of this kind of scenario. When your face is the brand of your company, there are a lot of direct consequences to personal statements and behavior. In an interesting point, Papa John’s board admitted this was the case for Schnatter when it said company business “could be harmed if Schnatter’s reputation were negatively impacted …”
And that’s the second edge of the double-edged sword of having a person very closely connected with a brand. What they do, say, and think is seen as what the brand stands for. At this point, it appears no further action is being taken to alter the Papa John’s brand, but the company is obviously waiting to see how quickly this latest PR incident blows over.
Ronn Torossian is CEO of 5WPR.