Laundry Service refutes Papa John's claims about blackmail... sort of

I have to come before you today with my hat in my hand and a mea maxima culpa on my lips. I realize that when I reported on Papa John Schnatter’s first excuse for using the n-word on a conference call and his subsequent departure from the company, I said it would be the last time. (He said he was pressured into saying it by their marketing firm, Laundry Service.) Then, I assured you that it was really, really the last time when I had to come back and opine on his claims that Laundry Service was trying to run an extortion racket on him. Well… sorry, folks. Turns out that it wasn’t actually the last time after all. And I don’t even know if this column will be at the rate we’re going.

So what’s up now? It’s the answer to one of the many questions I asked when we last joined Papa John on this epic journey. If he was going to publicly claim that Laundry Service was trying to extort him and they weren’t, couldn’t he get in trouble for that? Laundry Service certainly seems to think so.

An unnamed executive from Papa John’s now former ad agency Laundry Service today sent a memo to all employees calling recent claims by the brand’s founder John Schnatter “completely false.”

In the memo, which Adweek acquired, this individual also advises employees to avoid talking to the press or discussing client business with anyone outside the parent company, Laundry Service or its production division Cycle…

The note strongly denies those claims. It also states that the company will soon come forward specifically refuting them.

“As you all know, there’s been a lot of coverage about Laundry Service and Wasserman related to the Papa John’s situation in the past several days,” the note begins. “The disparaging and outrageous comments about Wasserman and Laundry Service that have been covered are completely false and we have a centralized PR strategy to go on the record and refute them. Until that time we cannot expect the media to know the truth.”

So why are we still talking about this story, right? They’re denying it and the claim sounded pretty crazy to begin with.

Well… maybe. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, as the saying goes. But is it just me or is there still something kind of fishy in the details? First of all, that wasn’t a public announcement. In fact, there still hasn’t been an official statement released. That’s an internal memo that Adweek obtained from a source either inside or close to the company. And it’s from “an anonymous executive.”

Does that sound right to you? A nationally prominent figure has accused employees at your company of attempting to blackmail him. And that was days ago. If the story is completely bogus, why wasn’t their top executive (or a spokesperson for them) out in front of the cameras and talking to the LA Times the very same day expressing outrage and announcing their intention to sue Schnatter for defamation?

Instead they’re making arrangements with an outside PR firm to develop a centralized PR strategy to go on the record and refute them? How much of a strategy do you need to bat down a false accusation? “That’s a preposterous lie and we’re going to sue the pants off Schnatter for saying it. And just to add a bit of irony here, we’ll sue him for the six million he claimed we tried to blackmail him for!

Strategy formulated. You can use that one at no cost, guys.

But they’re not doing that. And their designated spokesperson isn’t returning requests for comment, either. That brings me back to that oddball question I asked in my last article on this subject (linked above). Sure, it sounds like Schnatter is having a meltdown and just saying random things to try to salvage his career. But what if he’s telling the truth? The response from Laundry Service isn’t doing a thing to make me any more confident that this story is over.