For years, cows across America have been spotted on billboards, print ads and television commercials urging us to “Eat Mor Chikin.” The chickens, apparently fed up with the campaign, decided to strike back by enlisting an assortment of perpetually outraged groups and individuals to portray Chick-fil-A as a corporate villain.
By now the story is well known: In an interview with Baptist Press, Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy, who is a Christian, expressed personal support for traditional marriage, unleashing charges of being “anti-gay” and a torrent of vitriol toward a company that by every measure has been a model corporate citizen.
Among those with ruffled feathers were mayors in three cities who threatened to block the openings of Chick-fil-A restaurants simply because they don’t agree with his personal views. Others made extraordinarily hateful comments and threatened to boycott the restaurant chain or take other action.
Yesterday we saw the results: A classic PR backfire that scorched the opposition and generated a whole lot of moo-la for Chick-fil-A.
While the controversy is far from over, there are at least four PR lessons to be learned from the events of the past few days.
First, be very careful with boycotts because they can do more harm than good, especially in terms of perceptions. The millions and millions of people who saw pictures on the evening news and Internet of long lines streaming into Chick-fil-A restaurants around the country will long remember those images, as will the protestors who took a PR shellacking by this massive rebuke. There are companies whose policies I don’t like, but rather than calling them names and trying to organize boycotts against them, I simply shop elsewhere. People who don’t agree with Mr. Cathy’s values ought to consider just eating elsewhere.
Second, this episode is instructive in reinforcing how quickly a crisis can strike. The president of a company that has rarely if ever seen much in the way of controversy made remarks some found offensive and wham—the entire restaurant chain is suddenly in the crosshairs of a national firestorm.
Third, the value of having third-party influencers come to your organization’s defense when it’s attacked cannot be overstated. Gov. Mike Huckabee, Billy Graham and Rick Warren are among scores of leaders who defended the embattled chain. Ted Cruz, who just won the Republican nomination in the Texas Senate run-off race, served Chick-fil-A at his victory party. A major Wendy’s franchise owner put “We stand with Chick-fil-A” on his restaurants’ signs. Chick-fil-A didn’t have to lift a finger to defend itself; instead, a panoply of supporters did that for the chain.
Fourth, the incredible speed at which social media can spread the word is a game-changer. Gov. Huckabee conceived the idea of an Appreciation Day, and word zipped across the Internet through a special Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day Facebook page, Twitter and other channels. This was the grapevine in action exponentially.
Regardless of what one believes about how marriage should be defined, the attacks struck a nerve among fair-minded, freedom-loving people who turned out in droves to participate in Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day.
Here was a positive, tangible way for them to express their support for a company they admire while at the same time defend values to which they also adhere.
For those who agreed with the protestors but not with their methods, eating at Chick-fil-A was a way for them to take a stand for freedom of speech and religious expression. And for untold thousands, showing up and buying a meal during Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day was a way to register their protests against what they saw as hypocrisy on the part of many of the same people who routinely lecturing others about the need for tolerance and diversity.
The majority spoke peacefully yet decisively. They clearly demonstrated that they are tired of being bullied by elements in our politically correct society that seek to control what they say, think and do. The majority voted with their pocketbooks, and the result was a record-setting day for Chick-fil-A.
If the protests continue, I suspect the pushback will be even stronger. It reminds me of the old cartoon in which Wiley Coyote was always getting outmaneuvered by the Roadrunner, only this time it will be the cows outmaneuvering the chickens all the way to the bank.
Don Beehler provides public relations consulting services to advertising agencies and businesses.