Papa John's Founder, John Schnatter, has been anything but a good influence on his own brand/company. After blaming declining sales on the NFL's inability to resolve their national anthem protest issue, the NFL dropped him as their official pizza.

Then Schnatter decided he'd use a racial slur on a conference call. Now, baseball is moving away from him, his name is being stripped from a stadium in Louisville and his image is being stripped from all marketing materials and pizza boxes. 

Nice work, John.

So, the reeling company needed a smart move from the top ranks. CEO Steve Ritchie provided one.  First, check out the letter he wrote to customers--a fairly well-crafted approach: 

"This past week was the hardest week in my 22 years with Papa John's. I know the words of John Schnatter were offensive, and nothing pains me more than knowing they hurt you. To be clear, those words in no way represent my views or the values of our company. As the leader of Papa John's, I'm sorry.

Racism and insensitive language -- no matter the context -- will not be tolerated at any level of our company. Period.

Papa John's is not an individual. Papa John's is a pizza company with 120,000 corporate and franchise team members around the world. These are the people in your communities from all walks of life who work hard to provide you with better service and better pizza. These are your local owners and operators who do so much in your community."

Still, you deserve actions, not just words, so here's what we're going to do about it:

  • We're in the process of bringing in outside experts to help audit our company's culture and diversity and inclusion practices. This will allow us to identify our strengths and weaknesses. We will then set clear goals to do better.
  • Our senior management team will be on the road, listening to our employees and franchisees and getting their feedback on a path to move forward.
  • We'll be transparent with you along the way. We want you to hold us accountable.

I will personally be leading this effort because there is nothing more important for Papa John's right now. We want to regain your trust, and we will work hard to earn it. I know this will take time.

The entire team at Papa John's wants to thank you for your loyalty. We are only in business because of you. And it's our sincere wish that we'll continue to have the honor of serving you."

I'll get into why this is a good letter in a moment. But first let me point out that there was another letter that preceded this, one posted as an open letter on Papa John's website. For a company that prides itself on its ingredients, the letter on the website, while very similar to the one above to customers, blew it by omitting two key ingredients--a sense of compassion and a point-blank apology (Ritchie only sort of apologized in the first attempt). 

Ritchie must have caught this or had it pointed out to him, and thus adjusted the letter direct to customers to include empathy and a direct apology (I received the direct to customer letter as I subscribe to Papa John's promotional e-mails).

Setting the initial faux pas aside, here's why the direct to customer letter was well done.

This time, Ritchie showed empathy, a bit of vulnerability, and offered a direct apology. He pointed out that Schnatter's type of behavior would not be tolerated from any employee at Papa John's.

Ritchie also did some wise distancing. He pointed out that Schnatter's views were not his, that Papa John's is bigger than one person (even its founder) and that at the end of the day it was a company of 120,000, not a company of one. He then proceeded to remind the reader that all those employees were staples in their communities and hard working people too. 

The CEO then pinpointed specific actions they'd be taking to address diversity and inclusion and he raised his hand that he'd be personally leading the effort. He showed accountability and asked to be held accountable.

Again, perhaps it was unforgivable that the CEO's first attempt at a letter failed to show enough compassion and didn't offer an overt apology. But I'm choosing to focus on the quick adjustment the CEO made in what appeared to me to be a sincere effort to begin the healing and recovery process.

Let's hope this is a positive first step for Papa John's. They can ill-afford any more missteps. We all can just as easily order Domino's after all.

Published on: Jul 16, 2018