Shaq will help Papa John’s rehab its racism-tainted image

Shaquille O’Neal talking strategy.
Shaquille O’Neal talking strategy.
Image: Reuters/Brendan McDermid
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Since Papa John’s founder John Schnatter inserted himself into debates about racism in America, the pizza company has wrestled with its public image. What started with Schnatter criticizing the NFL’s response to anthem protests in 2017 ballooned into a crisis, when Forbes reported in July 2018 that he used the n-word in a conference call about similar public relations controversies.

Although Schnatter resigned as CEO and chairman, Papa John’s suffered, with its share price—and sales—falling dramatically. Now, more than a year on from its mistakes, the company is taking steps to repair its public image.

In March, retired NBA star Shaquille O’Neal became the company’s first African-American board member. At the same time, O’Neal also bought a stake in nine Atlanta franchises and agreed to become a brand ambassador. He recently celebrated the purchase of another location in Los Angeles on Instagram.

Bringing Shaq to the table “was genius because it brings back some street cred and validation, especially in the African-American community,” Eric Schiffer, chairman at Reputation Management Consultants, recently told the Courier-Journal. The pizza chain plans to launch a marketing campaign with Shaq next month.

Shares in Papa John’s also got a significant boost this week after the company named a new CEO, Rob Lynch, formerly president of Arby’s.

It’s tough to say whether Papa John’s can escape its founder’s poor judgment, but O’Neal didn’t hold Schnatter’s personal failings against the company when he decided to get involved. “This is the right thing to do,” he said. “It’s a great brand, and a product can’t be discriminatory. Only leadership can.”