By Samantha Cox (@samanthamcox)
Regardless of where you stand on the issue of gay marriage, there’s no denying that the recent Chick-fil-A controversy has left us with an endless amount of food for thought. CEO Dan Cathy’s statements have brought a range of additional issues to the table over the past month – from free speech to religious rights to civil rights and more. And with social media’s ability to spread news faster than ever before, politicians, celebrities and other public figures and organizations wasted little time in announcing their support for one side or the other. You have to wonder whether Cathy had any idea what a Pandora’s box he was about to open.
Yet open it he did, causing public relations folks across the country to collectively cringe. So where did Chick-fil-A go wrong, and how has it done since the crisis first broke? Let’s take a look.
Chick-fil-A has always been open about the fact that it is a company founded on Christian values; to this day, the Atlanta-based fast food chain remains closed on Sundays. But aligning a brand identity with religion can be a risky business. Although its position on gay marriage goes with its religious beliefs (and therefore its brand), its image has now been tarnished in the eyes of many consumers who didn’t previously have a problem purchasing fried chicken from a company with religious values – including gay Christians. As support for gay marriage continues to grow nationally, this aspect of Chick-fil-A’s brand identity may not fly for long.
Many people believe that Chick-fil-A simply is standing by its beliefs and exercising its right to free speech. But remember: when it comes to a crisis, the court of public opinion is just as powerful as the court of law. When a company’s beliefs intersect with controversial social issues, sometimes the best way to protect the brand – and the business – is to just stay out of it. A few days after the uproar began, Chick-fil-A’s VP of Public Relations, Don Perry, released the following statement in a valiant attempt at damage control:
“[Chick-fil-A’s] culture and service tradition is to treat every person with honor, dignity and respect – regardless of their belief, race, creed, sexual orientation or gender. We will continue this tradition in the over 1,600 restaurants run by independent owner/operators. Going forward, our intent is to leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena.”
Then there’s the issue of corporate giving. Beyond simply being founded on/aligned with Christian beliefs, what many people are angry about is the fact that Chick-fil-A has donated millions of dollars to anti-gay groups over the years. The importance of carefully choosing where you donate your corporate dollars can’t be emphasized enough. As Chick-fil-A is now learning, choosing to donate to controversial organizations will almost certainly come back to bite you. Had it been Cathy’s personal funds – as opposed to corporate dollars – it may have been a different story, but it’s still a danger zone.
Finally, the Chick-fil-A situation reminds us of the importance of maintaining transparency – especially during a crisis. One day after the Jim Henson Company announced its decision to end its partnership with Chick-fil-A because of its stance against gay marriage, Chick-fil-A coincidentally announced that it was “voluntarily recalling” all of its Jim Henson kids meal toys because of a “potential safety concern.” When a company is already in trouble with the court of public opinion, opening the door for allegations of lying is never a good idea. Then, to make matters worse, tech blog Gizmodo accused Chick-fil-A of creating a fake Facebook account to help counter the bad press. The account, supposedly owned by a teenage girl named “Abby Farle,” was allegedly created just eight hours before the online conversation began, and used a stock photo as its profile picture. While Chick-fil-A later released a statement denying that it had any connection to the Facebook account, the accusations certainly didn’t help the situation.
Only time will tell what sort of effects the past month will have on Chick-fil-A’s brand – and sales – in the long run. The debate continues both online and at Chick-fil-A locations across the country, where many continue to protest. Either way, it’s safe to say that the Chick-fil-A controversy will likely be talked about as a cautionary business tale for many years to come.
What do you think of the way Chick-fil-A has handled this situation? Do you think it’s wise for businesses to take a stand on controversial social issues? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.