Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek. 

Once, you were everyone's friend.

Suddenly, they shun you.

You wonder if it's something you said.

In the case of Papa John's Pizza, it is.

Founder John  Schnatter was forced to resign as chairman after he used the N-word on a marketing conference call.

He'd already resigned as CEO after claiming that NFL player protests were negatively affecting pizza sales. Which was a discordant racial dog-whistle for many.

Now, however, he's suddenly trying to stage a comeback and, oh, things are ugly.

Schnatter has his own website on which he intimates that only he can save his former company and does seem to suggest he's going nowhere.

Sadly, he manages to include some words to staff that truly have lost their meaning, given the circumstances in which they're now most often heard:

Please know that in every minute of every day, you are all in my thoughts and prayers.

But of course. Thoughts and prayers is, perhaps, the most sanctimoniously empty phrase of our millennium.

Is this all about who is most holy?

It's poignant, some might snort, how a man who thinks NFL players protesting social injustice affects sales is now doing quite some protesting of his own and doesn't imagine it'll affect sales at all.

What on earth, though, is Papa John's supposed to do?

The management have a business to run, a business that's not being blessed with a halo of joy.

On Friday, the pizza chain revealed a new ad on Twitter, one that had a very simple strategy: Take a knee and ask customers for forgiveness.

The ad is as forthright as one could imagine. 

"We heard you," it begins.

Then it displays tweets sent by angry customers. 

Sample: "I'd rather have frozen pizza than racist pizza."

Another topping: "Remember when we were actually making progress on civil rights issues?"

After a few like this, the company says: You expected better from Papa John's. So did we."

A barely-veiled slap at Schnatter, of course.

As more of these angry tweets scroll through, the chain thanks its customers for their anger/criticism/honesty.

Its CEO Steve Ritchie also made a declaration of the company's values and how he intends to steer Papa John's to a better place.

He promises diversity training and several other steps.

It's very much in line with Starbucks' reaction to its own awful incident in Philadelphia when the manager called police on two black men who were simply waiting for a meeting with a third man. 

Ritchie had no fence to sit on, even if this strategy makes you think the founder was only part of the problem. 

Ritchie had to do something direct and, many would say, he did this reasonably well.

Although the claim that consumer anger is "making us better" would need a little explaining.

Better how, exactly?

Is there more about the inner workings of the pizza chain that hasn't yet emerged?

Schnatter still owns 29 percent of Papa John's. Lawsuits are being tossed in the air and a general stench pervades the brand. 

It all reminds one of the more exciting days of Uber and Travis Kalanick.

Schnatter now has his own PR operation hard at work. Indeed, his spokesman told CNBC

The video produced by the company represents another example of the company attempting to hide the true facts. It omits the avalanche of comments made by customers, employees and others who support John Schnatter and feel that the company is wrong.

These days, business leaders have to look beyond their pure business roles.

They're now placed squarely in the midst of social issues, especially those about which their customers and staff feel strongly.

This was eloquently expressed by Delta CEO Ed Bastian last week, as he explained the company's self-distancing from the NRA

In the Papa John's case, the current management seems to hope it'll gain a relative moral high ground and secure the brand's image, though some will feel this is too little, far too late.

At heart, you know what the company really wants.

It's not to be a supremely moral bastion nor an overt champion of equality.

It wants to get Schnatter away from its brand and have him be quiet.

Who would be surprised if, behind all this messaging to customers, what's really going on is an attempt at negotiation between the company and Schnatter to create some ending?

Whatever Papa John's tries to do publicly, it's for the emotional consumption of its customers and the media. It's disinfectant.

The company needs to keep the business from nosediving further. 

It can only begin to return to some sort of stability, however, with the neutering of its founder.

You might imagine he'd realize that he's helping to destroy the brand and his own share of it. That may be the best negotiating tactic Papa John's has.

Schnatter can never return. That would kill the brand within minutes. But perhaps he's thinking of starting another pizza chain.

Schnattered Dreams Pizza has a nice ring about it.

Published on: Aug 25, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.