Chick-Fil-A: The PR Perils of Ostentatious Religiosity

Aug 1, 2012

By Vanessa Horwell, Founder and Chief Visibility Officer of ThinkInk

When it comes to religion, each individual has the right to believe – or not – whatever he or she wants.

But when an individual publicly advocates the religiously-motivated curtailing of other people’s rights that individual can quickly get in trouble, particularly so if he is one of the top executives at a well-known fast food chain.

And that’s why consumer approval ratings for Chick-Fil-A, the Atlanta-based chicken chain, have plunged since company president Dan Cathy explicitly told the Baptist Press on July 16 that he does, indeed, oppose marriage rights for same-sex couples.

The story quickly went viral across the social media community, making the past two weeks an absolute PR nightmare for the poultry purveyor:

The Jim Henson Company, which had partnered with the chain to produce the Muppets finger puppets in its kids’ meals, quickly dumped Chick-Fil-A after Cathy’s remarks made headlines. The chain then announced the toys are being “voluntarily recalled” due to the “safety issue” of some kids getting their fingers stuck in the puppets.

Of course they are. What a coincidence.

Then the chain – or someone acting on its behalf – was revealed to have created a fake Facebook profile with a stock photo of a teenage girl to support the lie and air positive comments about the company. That cheap and dishonest tactic, however, just made matters worse.

Both the mayor of Boston and a Chicago alderman have vowed to block the chain’s plans to open new stores in their cities and have made public statements denouncing the bigotry of Chick-Fil-A’s leadership.

And, of course, you have the scores of opinion pieces – mostly critical, but some approving – that have run in most of the major dailies and Internet news sites, keeping the controversy fresh.

To be sure, Chick-Fil-A has been run by Christian fundamentalists since first opening in 1967 and its record of quietly giving millions to groups that push for laws restricting gay and women’s reproductive rights is well documented. LGBT groups have been boycotting the chain for years.

But with the company’s president trumpeting his anti-gay views to the four winds, Chick-Fil-A shouldn’t be surprised at the public anger.

Yes, we’re all entitled to believe or not. But I’ve always found it both unprofessional and irresponsible, from a business perspective, when CEOs advertise intolerant religious beliefs knowing they will alienate large number of potential customers. I would never discuss my own beliefs in a business environment – there is a time and place for that, and it’s not the boardroom or amongst customers.

Of course, Chick-Fil-A has announced that it will refrain from further statements about gay marriage rights.  But it’s too late. The damage is done. And that’s exactly my point.

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