Did Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy stick a drumstick in his mouth back in July when he said that Chick-fil-A supported “the biblical definition of the family unit” and spoke out against gay marriage?
A social media firestorm erupted across the world wide wild web, powerful politicians like Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York and Thomas Menino of Boston entered the fray and the Jim Henson Co. pulled advertising and product placements.
Rather than bow to the pressure, Cathy’s comments energized social conservatives across the country. Former governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee declared an appreciation day for the chicken sandwich company. As a result of Huckabee’s endorsement and prodded on by the media frenzy, long lines formed around the corner at various Chik-fil-A storefronts and Forbes reporter Phil Johnson gleefully exclaimed, “… Cathy launched what may become the next hot new trend in marketing: the ability to differentiate between brands based on what stand they take on significant societal issues.”
Today businesses struggle to connect with their customers – engagement is no easy task with so much noise out there on the Web, on television, etc. Reputation management is essential. Cathy was suddenly propelled from a fast food franchise executive to either a national hero or agitator — depending on your point-of-view. As the media circus over Cathy’s comments went into overdrive, many are wondering, did it hurt or help? Should an executive of a diverse workplace with customers that may not share his views of a traditional family be spouting his views on marriage?
Some brands inspire a high level of emotional response from the public such as Apple or Disney – but most businesses don’t. These companies are always looking for ways to differentiate and generate customer excitement. As Johnson says in his Forbes column, the folks at Chick-fil-A ” …have also achieved the holy grail of modern marketing and created an emotional connection with their customers, engaging them in an authentic conversation about their lives and the company. And it all happened without a broadcast campaign.” Although Cathy’s comments alienated many people, its core business is located in the American South where conservative social views prevail and it does not appear that sales have suffered as a result of his comments.
An interesting point-of-view is raised by Philadelphia Inquirer reporter, Josh Gohlke who asks: should we trust the POV of a man who makes chicken sandwiches for a living? Again, whether or not one believes Cathy is right or wrong – should we even care that Cathy is saying this – why take his work for it – wouldn’t it be more appropriate coming from a preacher or a politician for instance? Gohlke writes that Cathy is lacking what lawyers describe as “standing” or credibility” and thus forces his “customers to digest his beliefs as well as his poultry.” Gohlke suggests that Cathy might have had less stirring and attention if he had commented on subjects closer to his business such as “obesity.”
The old adage “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” is not sustainable in today’s interconnected digital world, if it ever was. Once you express an opinion on a controversial subject it takes on a life of its own.
If you look at PR as a way to generate more media attention – then Dan Cathy’s statements were a success. But if Cathy has plans to expand his business to liberal northeastern cities or college campuses his statements may have repercussions among the more liberally-minded constituencies that will ultimately hurt his company.
As a post-script, several days after the scandal, an effort towards reputation management, as Chick-fil-A issued a statement saying it would “leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena.” The company added that it has always aimed to “treat every person with honor, dignity and respect — regardless of their belief, race, creed, sexual orientation or gender” and Chick-fil-A will be issuing a company-wide memo to clarify their position on workplace equality.