In Essays, Innovation

John Schnatter’s nasty public battle for control of the company he founded may be unresolved, but its lesson on reputation is both printed and bound.

In case you haven’t been following the soap opera, Schnatter used a racially-charged word during a training session on how not to use racially-charged words, and within days was forced to resign from the company’s board, plans were announced to remove his face from the company’s advertising and pizza boxes, and he was even kicked out of his office.

He’s fighting back, claiming not only that the moves were unjustified, but that he’s a victim (accusing the vendor who hosted the PR training session of threatening to extort him). He was quoted in the Wall Street Journal saying, “I will not allow either my good name or the good name of the company I founded and love to be unfairly tainted.”

The problem is that a reputation crisis is never about a specific event, and always about a response to…or even payback for…a pattern of actions.

Schnatter’s reputation problem is nothing new. He has a habit of publicly saying polarizing things about politics (like Obamacare and the NFL player protests), not to mention coming across as an unrepentant rich guy in an era in which being one isn’t particularly attractive (I know, I know, if only it were the 80s, and then he could get away with wearing a jacket with padded shoulders, too).

Privately, according to news reports, he’s known for being aggressive to the point of being explosive, and has a habit of dressing down his executives and store staff if he isn’t happy. There’s another “a-word” for people like that.

Granted, he’s contributed money to schools and various causes, and his PR people wrote bylined articles for him to say all the things he’d never otherwise say. But it wasn’t enough: When the latest infraction occurred, it didn’t prompt a reputation crisis.

It unleashed a reality crisis.

I mean, there’s no way the world drops the kitchen sink on this guy unless it was a long time coming. Conversely, judging by his combative reaction, he’s living up to (or down to) everyone’s expectations.

Notice all of the employees coming to his defense? How about the other vendors who have been inspired by interactions with him, or the independent corporate management gurus publicly noting the greatness of his managerial style?

Yeah. Crickets.

So what’s Papa John’s lesson in reputation? It’s not complicated, really. Reputation isn’t something PR people create, and it shouldn’t be confused with image, brand, or any other excuse for pretending something that’s make-believe is something that’s real. And that means you can’t “fix” a reputation with those tools, either, so you can afford to ignore all of the experts who are already writing stories about how to do it.

I don’t know John Schnatter, and I certainly don’t harbor any personal ill will toward him. But it sure seems like he’s getting back from people whatever he inflicted on them.

Reputation is the outcome of the quality of your relationships and experiences with others.

And until someone invents a time machine, there’s nothing he can do about it.

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