Is Controversy Good or Bad for Business?

It’s come to this. Chowing down on a chicken sandwich has become a political action, if that sandwich happens to come from Atlanta-based Chick fil A.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012, was “National Chick fil A Appreciation Day” and preliminary reports suggest that the merchandise at these restaurants, made famous by a bunch of cows on billboards extolling the benefits of “Eating Mor Chikn,” was moving briskly. This means that hundreds of thousands of people voted with their appetites and wallets. There was an equal and also highly vocal group who voted on the issue by staying away from Chick fil A on Wednesday and, one must assume, forever after.

So what the cluck is going on here? Hint: It’s not about the chicken How did a chicken sandwich become the focal point for a raging current of Facebook posts, dueling press conferences and more name calling and sabre rattling than will be heard the Democratic and Republican conventions combined?

It all started, as it usually does, with an innocuous comment made by the CEO of the company. A report in the August 1, 2012 LA Times  succinctly explained the brouhaha. “Chick-fil-A Chief Executive Dan Cathy said in a recent interview with the Baptist Press that although he doesn’t consider Chick-fil-A a ‘Christian business,’ he does operate on ‘biblical principles.’ Cathy said, “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, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that.”

Cathy also stated that gay marriage invites “God’s judgment on our nation.” This statement put Mr. Cathy and his company squarely on the side of those who favor the traditional definition of a family – a husband (male) and a wife (female) – a fact not lost on the other side of this controversy who feel a family can be defined by two males or two females living together in wedded bliss.

Both sides had their feathers ruffled. Liberals had a field day on the news channels noting what a Neanderthal CEO Cathy is and how they thought his establishments should be open on Sunday so that they could buy more of his delicious chicken sandwiches. Not to be outdone in this Family (Values) Feud, conservatives took to the airwaves and said what a great American Mr. Cathy is and how the closing of the Chick Fil A’s on Sunday is practically the Eleventh Commandment.

While it is not news that there are several issues that will ALWAYS polarize the American public – homosexuality, gun control, taxes, religion and government bailouts to name a few – having a controversy focused on one company or product is pretty rare. If you happen to run or own stock in such a company, this could be a good thing or a bad thing. It remains to be seen if Chick fil A gets more sales or fewer as a result of the controversy.

Whichever side you happen to find yourself on in this controversy du jour, there are several things that Brady Media Group would advise our clients to consider when taking controversial stands on issues of the day:

  • Think about the ramifications of anything that’s said to any media – no matter the size of the medium.  If the leadership of the company feels strongly about an issue and determines that the opinion is integral to the company, it should be prepared for a tidal wave of negative and positive attention that will inundate the company as a result.
  • Make sure that everyone on the team – from senior executives to store managers – is trained in how they should handle any media requests for comments. In most cases, ANY media requests around a controversial topic should be handled by a designated person at the corporate level.
  • The designated company spokesman should ALWAYS attempt to answer questions in a truthful and timely fashion. Saying “no comment” in this time of 24-hour news cycles is no longer acceptable.
  • If an answer to a media query is not available at the time it’s asked, the reporter should be given a specific time when the answer will be forthcoming.
  • Company spokesmen should never respond with anger or sarcasm, no matter how the question is posed.

Everyone, from CEO’s of fast-food restaurants to the crazy guy on the corner yelling about Armageddon, has the right to state their opinion. Unless there’s a crowded theatre involved and somebody is yelling “fire,” the U.S. Supreme Court has made this decision. Next case.

However, the right to free speech comes with responsibilities (see crowded theatre above) and there are practical ramifications from this that can affect a company’s success and failure. Before jumping into the fire of public controversy, make sure your company is prepared to deal with the heat.