Papa John's recovery plan now includes unconscious bias training

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Credit: Illustration by Tam Nguyen/Ad Age

Papa John's, in its latest public statement since its founder's use of the "n"-word came to light, detailed its push for more diversity and inclusion within the company, and announced an "unconscious bias" training program that has already been completed by its executives.

The No. 4 U.S. pizza chain has spent the last six weeks trying to recover from the first reports of the use of a racial slurs by company founder John Schnatter during a May conference call. On Friday, Papa John's posted a letter from CEO Steve Ritchie outlining its latest steps on the company website and linked to it on Twitter.

The No. 4 U.S. pizza chain has spent the last six weeks trying to recover from the first reports of the ethnic slur made by company founder John Schnatter during a May conference call. On Friday, Papa John's posted the letter from CEO Steve Ritchie on the company website and linked to it on Twitter.

"We stand for equity, fairness, respect and opportunity. Our most important ingredient is our people," Ritchie says in the letter. He also says that when he became CEO in January, "diversity, equity and inclusion became one of my top priorities," adding that he's personally committed to adding more diversity to the company's leadership team.

These efforts, he wrote, now includes an unconscious bias training; guidance from a special advisory group of diversity, equity and inclusion experts; a minority-owned franchise expansion and development program; and the formation of a new foundation for community impact.

The pizza chain's leadership team completed the training two weeks ago, and it's now being rolled out across the company, Papa John's said.

If a company-wide unconscious bias training at a major restaurant chain under public pressure regarding race sounds familiar, that's because Starbucks made a similar announcement last spring after the arrest of two black patrons at one of its Philadelphia locations. That chain closed thousands of shops for the training.

Papa John's says its training is not a one-day effort, but part of its leadership and development curriculum moving forward.

Later on Friday, Papa John's also posted a video on Twitter showing some social media posts patrons have fired off since the fallout, such as, "I'd rather have frozen pizza than racist pizza" and "I don't know what if anything you will be able to do to earn my business again." Papa John's then thanks people for their anger, criticism and honesty in imagery typed on the screen, before a brief appearance of the logo at the end of the 65-second clip.

Schnatter, of course, had something to say about the video. Well, he had a lot to say. Here's a part of his statement given to Ad Age by his spokesperson: "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."

The Papa John's letter and video follow a slew of other post-debacle social media posts from Papa John's, including announcements that it's hiring outside experts, conducting a listening tour, and having meetings with restaurant staff.

Papa John's is eager to move past the tarnished legacy of Schnatter, its longtime pitchman. His comments blaming the NFL's response to players' national anthem protests in November on declining pizza sales was the first major flare-up in his recent what-was-he-thinking tour. They were followed up by his use of the racial slur on a media training call with then-agency Laundry Service.

While Schnatter says his comments were taken out of context, he stepped down as chairman of the board, a decision he has since said he regrets. Papa John's has distanced itself from Schnatter by removing his likeness from all advertising and marketing, and even keeping him out of its Louisville, Kentucky, headquarters. Still, Schnatter remains the company's largest shareholder with a nearly 30 percent stake and is mounting his own campaign to muster the support of the company's 120,000 employees.

The latest plans come two weeks after Papa John's posted its third consecutive decline in quarterly same-store sales and lowered its sales forecasts for the year. At that time, the company laid out an assistance program for U.S. franchisees, including certain reductions in royalties, food-service pricing and online fees for the rest of the year. Papa John's is also providing funds to support new marketing and image overhauls as it erases Schnatter's likeness from all of its marketing materials.

And Ritchie's latest letter comes two days after Schnatter bought an ad in the Courier Journal to announced his new website, SavePapaJohns.com, where Schnatter told Papa John's employees they are in his thoughts and prayers "every minute of every day" and that they will "all get through this together somehow, some way."

It's unclear how much support Schnatter has within the company's ranks, which includes about 120,000 people employed by the company and franchisees. Two weeks ago Vaughn Frey, the president of the Papa John's Franchise Association, issued a statement through the company, saying, "We believe it is time for the founder to move on."

Frey also said that the steps the company is taking under Ritchie, including assistance for franchisees, are the right ways to move on and "help mitigate the impact that the founder's inexcusable words and actions have had on franchisees."

Papa John's has hired Endeavor Global Marketing on creative and Weber Shandwick's Powell Tate on PR to help it try to mitigate the situation. It hired Nimbus in June as its first multicultural agency.

Meanwhile, reports from Reuters and CNBC say Papa John's has hired Bank of America and Lazard as financial advisers.

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