Embattled Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy ignited controversy recently by opposing gay marriage. Here's what went wrong--and how you can avoid a PR disaster.
Embattled Chick-fil-A president and COO Dan Cathy ignited controversy recently with comments opposing gay marriage. And in spreading the good word about his fast-food chain's belief in the biblical definition of family, Cathy committed no fewer than five cardinal PR sins.
1. If you don't want to see it, hear it, or read it, don't say it.
When a reporter first asked Cathy if Chick-fil-A discriminated against same-sex couples, Cathy should have bridged, as we PR types like to say. Instead of uttering the now infamous "Guilty as charged," he could have said, "Business and politics don't mix." That might have have satisfied the reporter, who would have moved on to other questions. Always pause before answering a journalist's questions and think through the implications of your words.
Or, if you do decide to publicize your religious convictions, follow Bill Marriott's lead.
2. Line up brand ambassadors internally and externally.
If Cathy actually intended to start a firestorm of such proportions, he should have first lined up third-party ambassadors. Sure, right-wing politicians and church leaders rallied to support Chick-fil-A, but that was after the damage had been done. Imagine how much more powerful Cathy's remarks would have been if, say, Mike Huckabee and Glenn Beck had joined him on a podium.
3. Never surprise your No. 1 brand ambassadors: your employees.
The Chick-fil-A crisis is a journalist's dream story, considering how many successive news cycles it's spawned. The wise move would have been for Cathy to first alert company employees and franchise owners and ask for their support (or, if they disagreed with his stance, ask that they at least maintain their silence). But Chicago Chick-fil-A franchisee Lauren Silich told the national media she refused to discriminate and would serve any store patron regardless of sexual orientation. Ouch. So much for "Onward, Christian Soldiers."
4. Think through the implications of your words.
Smart CEOs never deliberately provide other leaders with fresh news platforms and story angles. Cathy did just that: The mayors of Boston, Chicago, and New York went on to use Chick-fil-A's crisis to advance their own political agendas. Why give competitors and others a bully pulpit of your making?
5. Express concern when a lead employee dies.
The sudden death of Chick-fil-A's PR director on Friday was yet another twist in a twisted story. A company spokesperson did express regret, but there were no words of sympathy from Cathy himself--a particularly visible slip, considering the two-week crisis that immediately preceded Don Perry's fatal coronary.
CEOs need to be front and center in good times and bad. And they really need to be front and center when the crisis is of their own making.
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