Chick-fil-A on public relations tightrope after latest Cathy same-sex marriage comments

I cut sheets of black paper into indiscernible blobs, taping them on the canvas of an old white t-shirt. It could have passed for a Rorschach Test until I went in search of a bovine mask and a bell to bind around my neck.

I dressed up as a cow last week for a chicken sandwich combo meal. What would you do for free food?

Courtesy Chick-fil-A.

Cow Appreciation Day is just part of Chick-fil-A’s charm. The fast food restaurant feels like anything but. The dining rooms are clean, the service is done with “pleasure,” and chances are, you’re going to get a free taste of something if you stick around long enough.

Of course, if you don’t have a stack of readily available coupons, Chick-fil-A ain’t exactly the value menu. It’s pricey fast food, but its customers gladly pay the premium in exchange for the culture.

The Chick-fil-A culture is closely intertwined with the Christian faith. Its founder, S. Truett Cathy, is a publicly professing Christian and through the success of his restaurant chain began a number of Christian missions under the umbrella of the WinShape Foundation. It’s not uncommon to hear Christian music playing in the restaurants and, perhaps most famously, you can’t go to Chick-fil-A after church – they are closed on Sundays.

It’s something Evangelicals can appreciate – no wonder the chain does so well in the Bible Belt – but the friendly service and philanthropic endeavors are enough to appeal to people of most any ethic. Everybody appreciates an upstanding company with strong ties to community. Christians and non-Christians alike can get behind eating more “chikin.”

But lately, the restaurant chain’s leadership has been vocal about a divisive religious issue with political connotations. Namely, Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy has publicly decried same-sex marriage, most recently in a radio interview on the Ken Coleman Show:

I think we are inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say ‘we know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage’ and I pray God’s mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about.

Cathy’s repeated comments have left his company on the defensive, forced to convince its employees and stakeholders that the restaurant does not discriminate in spite of its president’s personal convictions.

[RELATED: Chick-fil-A, the First Amendment, and the drawing out of a public relations firestorm]

And then there’s WinShape. According to tax forms, Chick-fil-A’s charitable arm donated almost $2 million in 2009 to groups publicly supportive of traditional marriage. (Chick-fil-A’s critics have been a bit loose with the facts here. They often refer to the recipients of donations as “anti-gay advocacy groups,” which isn’t entirely true. For instance, almost $500,000 was given to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, an organization with a platform far wider than opposition to same-sex marriage. Therefore, my wording “groups publicly supportive of traditional marriage” is hopefully more accurate.)

The backlash has been real, particularly at college campuses, where Chick-fil-A holds an ever-increasing presence in food courts. Students at New York University and the University of Illinois at Springfield fought against the restaurant moving on-campus. The NYU protest was responsible for this fictitious flyer that made the chain email rounds:

Courtesy NowPublic.

Thursday, Chick-fil-A released a statement on its Facebook page distancing the company from Dan Cathy’s comments once more, and pledging to get out of the political debate:

Courtesy Chick-fil-A, Facebook.

What follows is a discussion of the public relations impact of these events on Chick-fil-A. What follows is not an assessment of the rightness or wrongness of Dan Cathy’s beliefs about same-sex marriage.

By taking a hard-line stance against what many people see as the civil rights issue of our day, Chick-fil-A offends a portion of their customer base far beyond those who are themselves LGBT. Indeed, such a stance will earn the ire of liberal Christians.

By backtracking from this hard-line stance in an attempt to quell negative reaction, Chick-fil-A offends a portion of their customer base that shared Cathy’s perspective, and now sees the restaurant as kowtowing to the political corrects of the world. All for a statement that will do little to change the minds of the public already put off by Cathy’s agenda.

There is always a risk when the leadership of a company that serves the public takes on a divisive topic. Once you jump into the fray, it is impossible to please everybody, and if you waffle back and forth to try, you’ll find yourself pleasing nobody at all. It all comes down to what the cause is worth to the leadership. No doubt Chick-fil-A would be better off as a business if these statements had never been made, these particular charitable donations never given. But for Dan Cathy, the opportunity to influence a societal debate important to his values is worth the potential loss of customers. (For what it’s worth, Home Depot chose the opposite side of the issue, sponsoring and participating in gay pride events across the country, and drawing protests from those who vehemently disagree. Though differing values are at the core, the motivation is still to affect change, and a calculated business risk is still the vehicle).

Now Chick-fil-A consumers and potential consumers get the same choice. Do you provide Cathy with the finances and position of influence, or deny them in opposition? Is his boldness noble or his brashness misguided? Is the issue of enough consequence to you to affect your dining habits in the first place? Depends on your beliefs about religion and rights, human relationships and human institutions – not the type of heavy elaboration marketers want consumers delving into when it comes to fast food (or most anything).

Adding questions to a purchasing decision is never a good thing for a company. Adding questions that make you struggle with your core principles? I prefer carefree cow costumes.

Used to be, all you had to decide was whether you wanted the pickle on your sandwich or not. The business-minded folks at Chick-fil-A long for that day about now.

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