October 12, 2012
A basic rule in business is this: Never let your boss get blindsided. Now let’s add one for the boss: Never let your PR staff get blindsided. Those involved in the Chick-fil-A controversy ignored at least one of these rules, if not both.
Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy triggered a firestorm in July after his well-known conservative views — expressed in a Southern Baptist publication and on a religious radio program — went viral. Cathy said that his company supports the “traditional definition of marriage” and went on to assert that gay marriages “violate God’s plan.” He also said he believes that Americans have a “prideful, arrogant attitude” about gay marriage that risks “inviting God’s judgment on our nation.”
This may not be unusual coming from a pulpit, but it’s surprising to hear from the CEO of a successful and growing company — even one that is privately held and that doesn’t answer to Wall Street or a nervous board of directors.
The family-owned company is based in Atlanta and has grown to encompass 1,615 restaurants — primarily in the South — nationwide. Founded in the early 1960s by Truett Cathy, Chick-fil-A is known for inventing the boneless breast of chicken sandwich. The corporate culture is greatly influenced by the Cathy family’s Christian beliefs and is famously closed for business on Sundays.
The Wall Street Journal noted that Chick-fil-A annual sales surpassed a record $4.1 billion in 2011. The company is also the second-largest quick-service chicken restaurant chain in the United States.
This past summer, there was a torrent of accusations, denunciations, boycotts, demonstrations, rallies and even the sudden, tragic death of Don Perry, APR — a highly respected professional and the longtime head of company public relations — who suffered a heart attack.
This was a new day for a company that had always stayed under the radar on non-restaurant-related issues, and both Cathy and his communicators appeared to be ill-prepared for this. The events that followed provide a good case study in both management communication and a PR team’s response to a management-initiated problem.
When the story broke, the company posted a backtracking statement that had the right points and tone. It said, “The Chik-fil-A culture is to treat every person with honor, dignity, and respect — regardless of their belief, race, creed, sexual orientation or gender. Going forward, our intent is to leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena.”
However, several published reports called into question the company’s PR ethics. On July 20, the Jim Henson Company said that it was severing its partnership with Chick-fil-A. (It provided Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Puppets in Chick-fil-A kids’ meals.) For its part, the company reportedly said that it was “voluntarily recalling” all Jim Henson toys — and backdated the announcement to July 19.
Then on July 25, tech blog Gizmodo reported that Chick-fil-A appeared to have “astroturfed” their Facebook page by creating a fake account and posting supportive comments attributed to a stock photo of a teenage girl to try to counter the bad press. (Chik-fil-A denied this.)
Meanwhile, around the same time, politicians in Chicago, San Francisco and Boston said that they would try to block the chain from opening a restaurant in their areas. The company wisely ignored this headline-grabbing posturing.
Gay-rights activists and backers of same-sex marriage held “kiss-ins” at Chick-fil-A restaurants across the United States on Aug. 3. The company’s response was appropriately low-key. It issued this brief statement in response to the “kiss-ins”:
“At Chick-fil-A, we appreciate all of our customers and are glad to serve them at any time. Our goal is simple: to provide great food, genuine hospitality and to have a positive influence on all who come into contact with Chick-fil-A.”
The company wisely avoided the issue and, no doubt, more media criticism.
But when Chick-fil-A supporters staged a pulpit- and politician-initiated “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day,” the statement was longer and more effusive. It read, in part:
“We are very grateful and humbled by the incredible turnout of loyal Chick-fil-A customers on August 1 at Chick-fil-A restaurants around the country. Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day was not a company promotion; it was initiated by others. We congratulate local Chick-fil-A Owner-Operators and their team members for striving to serve each and every customer with genuine hospitality. While we don’t release exact sales numbers, it was an unprecedented day.”
Interestingly, the website said that the media should attribute these statements to Steve Robinson, executive vice president, marketing — a name that the public had not yet heard during this controversy. The comments should have come from CEO Cathy, but since making his controversial remarks, he has not spoken publicly on the subject.
It’s difficult to assess the long-term impact on Chick-fil-A after this series of events. But every business leader who wants to express strong personal views should learn a major lesson from this incident: He or she needs to work closely with PR professionals so that he or she can achieve personal objectives without embroiling the company in potentially damaging controversy. When an individual’s inflammatory stances are portrayed as company policy, more bad than good is likely to ensue.
Through the years, various companies have faced consumer backlash after their leaders took outspoken stances on sensitive topics.
For instance, in 2009, Whole Foods founder John Mackey wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal criticizing President Obama’s health care plan. In 2010, news reports surfaced that Target had contributed $150,000 to a PAC backing a gubernatorial candidate opposing gay rights. In each case, consumers reacted angrily. These examples illustrate the dangers of corporate outspokenness.
Senior-level communicators should keep the following actions in mind when facing similar scenarios:
Virgil Scudder is the author of “World Class Communication: How Great CEOs Win with the Public, Shareholders, Employees, and the Media,” which received an Award of Distinction as one of the best business books of 2012. He is president of Virgil Scudder & Associates, based in Miami Beach, Fla.
Email: virgil at virgilscudder.com