Will Chick-fil-A CEO Ever Learn?

Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy just can’t keep his mouth shut about his conservative stance on hot-button issues. Last summer he spoke out against gay marriage. This week, he did it again, although there may be evidence that he’s slowly learning a lesson.

When the U.S. Supreme Court this week ruled on several issues related to same-sex marriage, Cathy tweeted, “Sad day for our nation; founding fathers would be ashamed of our gen. to abandon wisdom of the ages re: cornerstone of strong societies.”

A short time later, the tweet was removed. Chick-fil-A released a statement that said, “He realized his views didn’t necessarily represent the views of all customers, restaurant owners and employees and didn’t want to distract them from providing a great restaurant experience.”

That is exactly the issue with CEOs using their positions to express political or religious views that have absolutely nothing to do with their business. That’s why CEOs should resist the urge to let their egos take control and keep their views to themselves.

Finally, it appears, some public relations professional at Chick-fil-A headquarters is giving the boss some good advice. It’s just too bad Cathy didn’t seek that advice before the fact.






CEOs and Egos: Resisting the Urge to Speak Out

It takes a huge ego to be a CEO. That fact can serve a business executive well when it comes to making difficult and sometimes unpopular decisions. It can also be a curse when CEOs think people will believe anything they say and do anything they say to do.

Donald Trump will be the first to tell us, “I’m a really smart guy,” so he spouts off on everything from sex appeal to the president’s birthplace. Jack Welch accuses the U.S. president of cooking the books on unemployment numbers, but can’t prove it. Chick-Fil-A executive Dan Cathy uses his position to evangelize and to promote a conservative Christian political agenda.

Now several CEOs of privately held companies are threatening their employees with unemployment if they vote to re-elect President Obama. First it was David Siegel, a gazillionaire who is most famous for building the largest private residence in the United States. Then it was billionaires Charles and David Koch, who claim no party affiliation but sent employees a flyer with a list of candidates — all Republicans — who should get employees’ votes.

Most recently, the Nordstrom brothers have announced their support for gay marriage. Apparently they believe the world has been waiting with great anticipation for them to make their views known on this social issue.

As I’ve written before, CEOs need to learn to keep their mouths shut when it comes to making statements on highly polarizing social and political issues, unless those issues have a direct impact on their businesses. The risk of alienating a large segment of their companies’ markets is too great. The cost of putting out the fires that inevitably erupt as a result of their statements is too high. There is little to be gained except having their names in the news for a day or two, and even then there’s a good chance half the people tuning in will view the story negatively.

In addition, CEOs should consider the impact on employees. At a time when companies need employees to be fully engaged to help the business succeed, doing anything to add hostility and stress to the work environment is not a good idea. The CEOs who recently have spoken out on the presidential election might say they’re not trying to strong-arm their employees concerning a most sacred private decision, but perhaps they should ask employees how they feel. I’ll bet many employees wish the boss had kept his opinions to himself.

Yes, these CEOs have every right to speak out on politics, social and religious issues, and anything else about which they feel strongly. But that doesn’t make it a good business decision.

One could also argue that the economy is a legitimate issue on which CEOs should speak out, but there are better, less divisive ways to do it. John Engler, president of the Business Roundtable, a group that represents the CEOs of America’s largest corporations, recently called on both parties in Congress to compromise on tax cuts, spending cuts and revenues. He made a compelling case for legislators to work together, explaining that economic uncertainty is hampering hiring, investments and sales. Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein added that a bipartisan deal would have a “huge” positive impact on the economy.

No threats. No intimidation. No mouthing off. Just a sensible, nonpartisan call for elected officials to work together to solve the nation’s economic problems.

It’s time for CEOs to realize most people don’t really care what they think about anything except the things that directly affect them, to wit: the Nordstroms should focus more on providing great customer service than speaking out on gay marriage.

And if CEOs just can’t resist the urge to say something, make sure it’s at least marginally relevant to employees’ well-being or customers’ concerns.

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.