Ruffling the Wrong Feathers

A lesson for corporate presidents from the Chick-fil-A debacle: Keep your beak shut

Well over two weeks after what seemed like an ordinary interview with a religious periodical, feathers are still flying over Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy’s comments in opposition of gay marriage. A quick recap: The Muppets have pulled their toys from the restaurants while New York University students pushed to close the unit on campus. The mayors of Chicago and Boston have, respectively, denounced the brand and told it to get lost, and Newsweek published the editorial of an (anonymous) gay Chick-fil-A employee, begging her own community not to boycott the restaurants because it’ll only pluck hours off her own paycheck.

Meanwhile, Aug. 2 dawned to lines around the block at many of the fast-food chain’s outlets for “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day,” though a promised “National Same-Sex Kiss Day”—in which gay couples were to have made out over their Chick-n-Strips—was slated for Aug. 3. And all this on the heels of news from the folks at YouGov BrandIndex that Chick-fil-A’s approval rating among customers has nosedived everywhere in America (except the Midwest), with its score falling from 76 to 35 in the Northeast. (Fast food’s average score is 43, by the way.)

Cathy probably did not foresee starting this much trouble when he told The Baptist Press on July 16 that a country attempting to “redefine” marriage is “inviting God’s judgment,” but the latest word from the company’s PR hens in Atlanta suggests that the chain now wishes the whole issue would just disappear. “Going forward,” the chain told CNN, “our intent is to leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena.”

It’s a bit too late for that, obviously. But the truly surprising news to emerge from the brouhaha is not that a known Christian conservative president of a fast-food chain made comments that rankled social progressives, but that a senior executive of his caliber didn’t know enough not to make them. Chick-fil-A is only the latest in a long line of brands that has learned the hard way that gestures of intolerance from the corner office seldom turn out well.

A few examples from the archives: When Blizzard Entertainment (maker of the savagely popular World of Warcraft games) screened a video at its BlizzCon convention in October that included the words “homo” and “faggot,” a week’s worth of outcry from the gamer community coaxed a lengthy apology from president Mike Morhaime. “I have read your feedback and comments,” he wrote, and referred to the video as “shortsighted and insensitive.” In March 2011, when Target’s management gave $150,000 to Minnesota gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer—a vocal opponent of same-sex marriage—it cost the big-box retailer its exclusive deal to sell the latest album from Lady Gaga, who publicly took her music (and fans) elsewhere. (Said the Chicago Tribune: “From an integrity standpoint, Lady Gaga has scored a win.”) And then there’s the textbook case of Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, which in 1991 issued a directive to fire any employees who failed to display “normal heterosexual values”—and then suffered through a decade of controversy and bad press until shareholders finally voted to add sexual orientation to its company policy in 2002.

The details of these notorious incidents vary, but the common theme is the same: Exclusionary rhetoric has this funny way of being bad for your brand. According to David Paisley, senior research director of San Francisco-based Community Marketing, the damage to companies in the wake of cases like these don’t result from short-term boycotts (which vary in their efficacy) so much as the overall stain on a reputation that can take years to scrub off. “The publicity you’re going to get from going down this road,” he said, “is just not good for business.”

Just ask Pete Coors. The Coors Brewing Co. chairman likely still remembers the contentious mess that began way back in the mid-1970s, when his company was accused of submitting potential hires to a polygraph test to determine if they were gay (an allegation that was never proven). Coors endured the ire of gay consumers for the better part of a generation before doing an about-face and offering domestic-partner benefits to its gay employees and openly courting the gay community in its advertising. Coors himself is a highly conservative man, but he illustrated a critical difference when he explained in 2004 that his company’s gay-affirmative policies were “good business, separate from politics.”

And that, says veteran employee training consultant Stephen J. Gill, Ph.D., is the distinction that Dan Cathy failed to make the other week. “It is bad practice for presidents and CEOs to express their personal and controversial values on behalf of their companies,” Gill said. “If they want to attract new franchisees in the future, they need to be careful that they don’t do things to offend.” The same thing goes for front-line employees, too. “Employees want to feel good about what they are doing,” Gill said. “If espoused corporate policy is to treat every person with honor, dignity and respect but the company doesn’t do this in what they say, employees notice, and will feel less committed to their jobs.”

Paisley sums it up more generally: “One thing that all sides need to be careful about is that nobody likes a mean person. If you come off as mean, you lose.”


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