Paul Holmes 19 Aug 2012 // 7:30PM GMT
The controversy that erupted when Chick-fil-A president and chief operating officer Don Cathy told the Baptist Press that “we are very much supportive of the family—the biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business” has given rise to an interesting crisis communications case study, and to some even more interesting questions about the wisdom and appropriateness of various forms of consumer action. Cathy’s remarks—coupled with the company’s own policies and history of donations to anti-gay causes—triggered a storm of criticism, a boycott by gay-friendly consumers, a day of support by anti-gay bigots and (bending over backwards to be fair) free speech advocates, and threats from various government officials to make life difficult for the restaurant chain to open additional outlets in their towns. Let’s start by interpreting Cathy’s claims about the “biblical definition of the family unit” in the most generous light. Let’s assume Cathy means that marriage is “between a man and a woman” rather than endorsing polygamy (by far the most common form of marriage in the bible) or the right of men to take the women of conquered peoples as their “wives.” And let’s ignore for now that fact that many Christians are happy to accept gay and lesbian marriage. Taking that as a starting point, I have a couple of points to make, one about appropriate and inappropriate kinds of protest, and one about appropriate and inappropriate kinds of corporate response to a crisis like this one. As many others—including the vast majority of liberal commentators—have observed, the threats against Chick-fil-A by the mayors of Boston, Chicago and San Francisco were entirely inappropriate. Threatening to exclude a company on the basis of its CEOs’ views is a serious rising government restriction of freedom of both speech and religion. And quite apart from the principle, the danger of right-wing mayors discriminating against gay-friendly companies ought to be sufficient to discourage any precedent. (If there was evidence that Chick-fil-A was violating the rights of gay and lesbian employees that would be a different matter entirely.) On the other hand, criticism of the Chick-fil-A boycott and the National Marriage Equality Day campaign, which saw consumers flock to Starbucks, seems slightly misguided to me. At Slate, J Bryan Lowder asks, “That being said, it’s worth asking what it means that the discourse surrounding gay equality has become so, well, corporate. When freeway-exit restaurants become the battleground upon which we fight, haven’t we taken a dangerous detour on the way to someplace more appropriate like, I don’t know, Washington?” It’s not an absurd observation, but I do think it’s wrong in a couple of ways. First, because corporations have the ability to impact citizens’ quality of life at least as much as corporations do, and many companies have in fact taken a lead on gay rights issues—providing benefits to civil partners, for example—ahead of regulatory changes. And second, corporate money drives the political process; letting companies know what consumers think of their political expenditures can have an impact on the political process. Now to the good and bad of Chick-fil-A’s response. The company’s initial attempt to appease protestors involved either permitting or encouraging individual franchisees to distribute a statement distancing themselves from the corporate position. Several franchisees released what was obviously a corporate form letter, emphasizing that Cathy had been expressing his personal views, and that the local franchise valued its relationships with all of its customers. The fact that this was so clearly pro forma made it look phony. Having said that, Chick-fil-A’s corporate response—the company has stuck to its guns, and welcomed a customer “appreciation day” organized by its supporters—makes sense to me. I happen to believe the company is on the wrong side of history, just as Woolworth was a little over 50 years ago. But I have always believed that good public relations had to be driven by an organization’s values rather than by expediency. If Chick-fil-A genuinely believes this stuff, it should be true to its values, and not be swayed by a cynical calculation about whether a change in policy would broaden its popularity. That’s called authenticity, and there is not enough of it in corporate America these days.