Mar 02, 2009, 04:57AM

Papa in the Hot Seat

The founder of Papa John's Pizza initiated a mini-controversy by saying that people should maybe not eat a half-dozen slices in one sitting.

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Photo by The Pizza Review

John Schnatter, founder of the pizza chain Papa John's, recently made a statement on BBC's popular Radio Four program that would have been a tremendous example of social responsibility from a corporate leader. Instead, careless journalism made his comments seem less like responsible behavior and more like poor business strategy during a time of economic turmoil.

In response to BBC presenter Adam Shaw's question regarding the UK government's £275m anti-obesity drive and whether it would effect the prosperity of his business in the EU, Schnatter replied: "No. Pizza's actually healthy for you if you don't eat too much of it. You can't eat five or six slices but if you eat one or two slices it's very nutritious." Shaw jokingly replied, "I'm not sure your investors would want to hear you tell people don't eat too much of our pizzas," and ended the interview with a laugh. This exchange between Schnatter and Shaw became a major story, earning a top spot in the "Latest News" column on CNN's homepage amongst the daily panic-inducing headlines about massive job cuts and bankruptcies.

As it is highly unusual for a company's founder to advise the public to consume less of his own company's product, Schnatter's statement was newsworthy, economic crisis or not. But, given the current global panic, was it necessary for Shaw to draw attention to Schnatter's comment in this way? Journalistically, was it really "benefiting the public' good" in this frantic climate, to bring negativity to some common sense that was only intended to help the world's pizza-eating population? Absolutely not.

Publicly held Papa John's (NASDAQ: PZZA.O) is the world's third largest international pizza chain and was recently ranked the number 10 global franchise for 2009 in Entrepreneur magazine's Franchise 500. In an environment where chain stores are shutting down at hundreds of locations, Papa John's has experienced relative stability and recently added to its 3000 locations by opening it's doors in the Dominican Republic and adding a hundred new restaurants in Malaysia.

What's more, the Schnatter interview had plenty of potential for positive PR. In a broad sense, Schnatter's comments should have underscored progress toward a notion of social responsibility. His message of caution could have been posed as a hope-inspiring example of a fast-food executive putting his customers' health over money-making potential by recommending to eat in moderation. Moreover, it could have been a step in the right direction toward a top-down approach to healthier living, helping to raise awareness of the growing obesity epidemic. Or it could even have been a simple example of an American businessman going abroad and helping to disprove the unfortunate stereotypes surrounding American consumerism and gluttony. Instead, this story seemed to join the daily doom and gloom of economic news all because John Schnatter essentially said, "Look, pizza tastes awesome, but if we eat six slices at a time we may turn into the amorphous race of people from Wall-E."

In fairness, Shaw's words were said jokingly as he ended the interview and most likely were not made with an ulterior motive in mind. But he should have realized that, given the times, his offhand comment was careless at best and sensational at worst. If he needed some sort of filler talk to close the discussion he could have shed a positive light on Schnatter's advice by saying something along the lines of, "It's not every day you hear a company founder caring about its consumers enough to say consume less."

There was simply no need to make already nervous investors wary of a successful and financially sound company during a global economic crisis. The MSM is constantly blasting executives these days for fiscal irresponsibility, and often correctly, but the one time a corporate bigwig makes a socially responsible comment, insensitive news reporting presents him in a negative way. If the world is expected to realize "era of social responsibility" as part of economic recovery, it will require more sensitive and responsible journalists, not just corporate leaders.



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