Chick-Fil-A: From Frying Pan into the Fire

Chick-Fil-A, the fast-food restaurant chain famous for its chicken sandwiches and for being closed on Sundays, is in the midst of a media firestorm over its CEO’s remarks about traditional marriage. The company seems to have gone from the frying pan into the fire in a matter of days.

A few observations about the communication implications:

CEOs need to learn to keep their mouths shut about hot-button issues not directly related to their businesses. The real head-scratcher for me is why Chick-Fil-A CEO Dan Cathy felt he needed to speak out about his personal support for traditional marriage (interpreted by most as anti-gay marriage). He made the remarks to a Christian news organization in the context of discussing how his beliefs influence how his family-owned company approaches business. But surely he had to anticipate the impact his remarks could have on the bottom line. CEOs – even those who take seriously their personal faiths – have an obligation to be good stewards of the companies they lead. That means not saying or doing things that put the company in a precarious financial position.

Corporate values are fine, but beware crossing over into personal values. Ever wonder why most company values include overused words like trust, respect for individuals and integrity? It’s because they are values everyone can agree on. Who doesn’t want to work for a company that’s committed to excellence or honest in its dealings? The problem is not with corporate values, it’s with the trickier personal values that some company leaders choose to communicate. Mr. Cathy is a devout evangelical Christian. He makes no bones about the fact that the personal values his faith has led him to espouse spill over into how he runs his company. (And, by the way, he can run his privately-held company however he wants to, guided by whatever personal values he wishes to follow.) But confusing the two is treacherous. Companies can impose and even enforce their corporate values on employees and customers (“this is how we do things around here”), but their leaders can’t and shouldn’t try to impose their personal values on stakeholders.

Social media add tremendous fuel to PR firestorms. Part of the reason the backlash toward Chick-Fil-A has been so strong and so fast is because the story has taken on a life of its own online. Paul Root Wolpe, director of the Center for Ethics at Emory University, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “Social media is the great equalizer. It gives people who are otherwise relatively voiceless an enormous advantage in communicating with the public.” Not only do stories like this spread quickly online, but it can become nearly impossible to steer the conversation. So much information is shared so quickly with so many people, anything a company says in its defense is likely too little, too late.

We live in a hypersensitive, polarized, information-overloaded world in which public debates quickly reach a fever pitch. And companies need to understand that’s the public audience they’re dealing with these days. I don’t know if this I’m-good-you’re-evil mindset is a new phenomenon or if it’s always been there and is just now being exposed by social media, but it’s real. I’ve been watching discussions about the Chick-Fil-A story on discussion boards for communicators and among my friends on my Facebook feed. It’s amazing how quickly a civilized, grown-up discussion can deteriorate into name-calling and ostracizing. Anyone who happens to like a Chick-Fil-A sandwich is called a bigoted hater. Anyone who supports marriage equality for gay people is called an anti-family radical. This polarization and pent-up hostility is a force that communication professionals must reckon with. Ignore it at your peril.

Just as it was born in the free marketplace of ideas, this issue should be settled in the free economic marketplace. Given that Mr. Cathy has spoken his mind, and given that the debate rages on in the traditional and social media, the ultimate judge in this case should be consumers. Let those who are opposed to the CEO’s remarks boycott the restaurant. Let those who support him buy an extra sandwich or two. Let the Muppets find somewhere else to market their characters. Let the marketplace decide whether or not this fast-food chain will survive. But don’t let government intervene, as the mayors of Chicago and Boston would like. No laws have been broken – so far – and both sides are busy communicating to their constituencies. Let communication happen and let the public decide who wins.



In an interview with CBS News, President Barack Obama says the biggest mistake of his first term as president has been his inability “to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times.”

Obama’s presumptive opponent in this fall’s election, Republican Mitt Romney, pounced on his remarks, saying, “Being president is not about telling stories. Being president is about leading, and President Obama has failed to lead.”

This is not a political blog and what I’m about to say is not politically motivated. But Romney couldn’t be more wrong.

Yes, being president is about leading, but a big part of leadership is telling stories. Ronald Reagan knew it and that’s why he is still called “The Great Communicator.” The most successful CEOs also know it. I once worked for a company in which the CEO was obsessed with telling stories because he knew their power in helping employees understand his vision for the company. And in business as well as in government, those without a vision are lost.

Carol Kinsey Goman, a consultant and expert in culture change for business, wrote several years ago that “Good stories are more powerful than plain facts. This is not to reject the value in facts, of course, but simply to recognize their limits in influencing people. People make decisions based on what facts mean to them, not on the facts themselves. Stories give facts meaning. Stories resonate with adults in ways that can bring them back to a childlike open-mindedness — and make them less resistant to experimentation and change.”

I don’t know many people who would argue that change is not needed in our country. Obama ran and won on that platform, in fact. Perhaps he’s on to something. Those who believe he has failed to bring about the change he promised — and I would think Romney is among them — might consider that the president might be right in his assessment of his first term. Perhaps if he had been a better storyteller, more change might have happened.


Hard Lessons at U.Va.

Thomas Jefferson must be rolling over in his grave.

The University of Virginia, which Mr. Jefferson founded, is in turmoil this week over the board of visitors’ ouster of popular President Teresa Sullivan and the shroud of secrecy surrounding the decision.

It looks increasingly likely that Sullivan will be reinstated following an outcry by students, faculty and alumni, but the damage to U.Va.’s image will take quite some time to heal.

Not surprisingly, the debacle is rich in communication lessons:

  • Not communicating with your organization’s stakeholders is never a good communication strategy. Under the Freedom of Information Act, news media obtained emails circulated among members of the U.Va. board of visitors, which revealed that it hired a Washington D.C. consulting firm for a “strategic communication project” at $750 an hour. The apparent “strategy” was to announce Sullivan’s forced resignation without explaining the reasons behind it. As a former communication consultant (who never earned anything near that hourly rate), I can tell you the board of visitors wasted its money on awful advice.
  • Information will eventually find its way out into the open, so you might as well communicate up front. Rector Helen Dragas, who was the driving force behind Sullivan’s ouster, finally explained the reasons behind it — something she should have done at the outset. “I agree with critics who say that we should have handled the situation better,” she said. “In my view, we did the right thing, the wrong way.” That is perhaps the understatement of the entire incident. While certainly there are times when information must be withheld — to comply with regulatory laws, for example — leaders must default to communicating more, not less, with stakeholders. Doing so avoids a lot of problems in the long run.
  • Lack of communication always results in a breakdown of trust. “Trust, one of our core institutional values, has been compromised,” said Carl Zeithaml, the interim president appointed by the board of visitors. Trust between leaders and those they lead is always the first victim when communication is compromised. And while trust can be destroyed in an instant, it can take months or even years to rebuild.
  • Civility wins the day — and lack of it erodes your position. Alumni, students and faculty have been understandably upset over the entire incident. But they harm their case by engaging in communication behaviors that are really no better than those exhibited by Dragas and her allies on the board of visitors. Sullivan exhorted her supporters to rise above: “I know that emotions are running high on Grounds,” she said, “but there is no excuse for abusing anyone with whom you disagree. Let me say in particular that Carl Zeithaml has been an exemplary member of the university community, and he and his family in no way deserve abusive language.”

Jefferson was clearly an advocate of open discourse and the free flow of information among leaders and those they lead. We can only wonder what he would think of what is happening to the institution he so carefully created.


Baby Steps

I’m not a runner, but lately I’ve been pretending to be one in preparation for a local event, the Corporate 4-Miler. I’ve reached the ability to run two miles without stopping, which doesn’t sound like a lot for people who run in 10ks and marathons, but which is a major accomplishment for me.

As one of my Facebook friends reminded me, we all cross the same finish line. I’m not looking to set any records. I’m looking for the free beer at the end.

Earlier this year, my boss asked me to put some thought around manager/leader communication in my company. We want managers/leaders to be better informed so they, in turn, can communicate more effectively with the people they lead. I excitedly mapped out a plan for reaching the desired end state in which managers/leaders are well trained as communicators, where they freely share information with their people and engage them in meaningful dialogue.

My boss reminded me that what she was really looking for was some incremental steps toward that goal that we could take immediately. Ahh. That makes the task a lot less daunting.

To help guide my thinking in manager/leader communications, I bought a book called The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work. It’s written by a Harvard Business School professor and her husband, a developmental psychologist. They asked hundreds of employees in several organizations to keep diaries about what motivated them at work. One big finding was that while managers and leaders often believe recognition, incentives, clear goals and the like are the greatest motivating factors for employees, the thing that really gets people going is seeing incremental progress toward goals. People want to see the baby steps that get them where they want to be.

Of course, this suggests a significant communication role for managers/leaders. People want to understand the goals before them, they want to know where they fit in, and they want regular feedback on how they’re doing. They want this collaboration and communication with their bosses to be consistent and ongoing. Seeing incremental progress motivates people to be more engaged, productive and creative in their work.

Thunderstorms every day this week have kept me from being able to run outside. I had worked my way up to completing two miles, but not being able to see any progress this week has demotivated me. Kind of like a lack of communication from a boss. I’ll get back out there and pick up where I left off, but it’s going to be tough.


Yahoo!’s Seinfeld Moment

One of my favorite “Seinfeld” episodes is “The Apology,” in which AA-inspired Jason “Stanky” Hanky apologizes to people he has wronged. Everyone, that is, except for George Costanza, who tries to pry an apology out of Jason for what he considers an insult concerning the size of his head.

Jason offers a sarcastic apology, then later apologizes for it — or does he, really?


I was reminded of this half-apology when I read a memo to employees from Yahoo! CEO Scott Thompson. The company revealed last week that Thompson lied on his résumé, stating that he had received a computer science degree from Stonehill College when in fact his degree is in accounting.

Yahoo! defended Thompson, saying that “This in no way alters that fact that Mr. Thompson is a highly qualified executive with a successful track record leading large consumer technology companies.” Well, yes it does. The leader of one of the world’s leading technology companies shouldn’t lie. And if he lies about his college degree, what else would he lie about?

As Yahoo! scrambled to figure out how to manage the fallout from this embarrassment, Thompson wrote a memo to employees. He does a few things right — talking about how the board is dealing with the issue and trying to refocus employees on the considerable work ahead of them — but then there is this:

I want you to know how deeply I regret how this issue has affected the company and all of you. We have all been working very hard to move the company forward, and this has had the opposite effect. For that, I take full responsibility, and I want to apologize to you.

Thompson has made one of the most common mistakes CEOs, politicians and other scoundrels make when they are caught doing something wrong and try to apologize for it. He apologizes for the fact that his lying has affected the company and its employees, but he doesn’t really apologize for lying.

I wouldn’t blame Yahoo! employees if they felt a bit like George Costanza. They deserve an apology — the right kind of apology for the real offense, not regret for the fallout it has caused.


Great News! CEOs Still Don’t Like Us Very Much

Public relations and communications professionals might be gaining some stature in the eyes of their CEOs, according to the latest Generally Accepted Practices report from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. The biennial survey included 620 PR and communication professionals in private and public companies, government organizations and agencies.

About 60 percent of the respondents said they’re invited to attend executive meetings while nearly 70 percent said their top executives take their recommendations seriously. Fifty-six percent said their CEOs believe PR and communications contribute to their company’s financial success.

That’s good news because PR and communication functions are like the runts of the litter, always having to fight to get fed and constantly vying for our executives’ attention and appreciation. The fact that more than half report their CEOs feel they contribute to the bottom line is encouraging indeed.

However, it begs some questions: Why do the other half of the CEOs keep communicators around? If they don’t believe PR and communication add any value, why do they keep funding the roles? What about the 40 percent who never get invited to executive meetings and the 30 percent whose recommendations are waved off as frivilous? No CEO in his or her right mind would hang on to a corporate function they don’t believe in or value.

I believe the truth is they do believe in PR and communication. They do value us. They’ll just never admit it.

If we’re doing our jobs right, CEOs will never be in love with those of us in PR and communication. That’s because we’re challenging conventional wisdom in our organizations. We’re pushing our executives to change the nature of their conversations as well as their tone. We’re advocating for the audiences who, more than ever, see through corporate crap and demand that CEOs be real and authentic no matter what they’re talking about. If we’re serious about providing value, we’re a burr in our CEOs’ sides most of the time — but all for the sake of helping our organizations do and say the right things. It’s all about helping our organizations — and leaders — succeed.

CEOs don’t like us very much and probably never will. But they know they need us.


How Communicators Can Aid Employee Retention

In another sign the U.S. economy is improving, a recent survey by one of the nation’s largest recruiters found that 28 percent of employers’ job openings in January were the result of people quitting their jobs, up from 21 percent last July. The Bureau of Labor Statistics confirms this trend, saying that the number of U.S. workers quitting their jobs has steadily increased since the low point of December 2009, in the depths of the recession.

This is good news for workers because it indicates they are more confident they can find a job. It’s bad news for employers because it’s expensive to lose talent and recruit replacements. It’s also bad news for employers because it indicates a shift of power back into the hands of employees. It’s slowly becoming a job-seeker’s market once again, so hiring companies might soon find themselves making more concessions in negotiations with candidates.

There’s something else going on here, though. When unemployment is high and jobs are hard to come by, companies sometimes treat employees like a necessary evil, paring back benefits and perks, imposing more restrictive policies, pulling back on communication activities and becoming less forthcoming with information than they were when times were good. Managers get grumpy because they’re often caught in the middle of this austere environment, and as we know, people quit their bosses more than they quit their companies.

I wrote about this coming shift nearly two years ago and how employee communication could play a role in helping to stave off the exodus. Now it’s upon us and I have some additional thoughts about the role communicators could play in helping our organizations retain talented employees who might be looking for greener pastures.

  • Help to create or maintain a culture of open communication. Hopefully communicators have done this throughout the recession as business leaders pulled back on communicating — because there wasn’t much “good news” to communicate. The business environment shouldn’t dictate what an organization’s communication culture is like.
  • Help position managers and supervisors as trusted sources of information. Middle managers are the linchpins of most organizations and they should be armed with enough information, resources and training to maintain the trust relationship with employees — in good times as well as bad.
  • Encourage business leaders to be out front and up front. This past recession, perhaps more than any other, greatly eroded employees’ trust and confidence in senior management. One way to rebuild that trust and confidence is for leaders to be seen and heard. Employees’ decisions to leave organizations are sometimes based on false assumptions about the condition of the organization or because employees don’t believe its leaders have a plan for success. Now is the time for leaders communicate openly and clearly about how the organization is emerging from the recession and what it plans to do in the next 3-5 years.
  • Communicate about employees’ total compensation package. Without being too obvious about it, find a good time to remind employees of what the company offers them beyond base salary or hourly wages. Before open-enrollment time, tell employees about some of the “hidden benefits” they might not know about. Find ways to remind employees why it’s good to work for the organization (if, indeed, it is — don’t put a turkey in a tuxedo and pass it off as high class).

Hopefully, your organization isn’t playing “catch up” now that better times appear to be on the horizon. Making “good will deposits” in the bad times is the best way to ensure your best employees stick around when it’s easier to leave.