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.

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Answering the Why

While consulting with a Fortune 500 consumer products company, my client and colleagues and I conducted internal and external research as the basis for an internal communication plan. As we talked with employees in focus groups, one theme kept reappearing. Employees didn’t just want to know where the company was headed and what decisions management was making. They also wanted to know why.

Answering the why is probably one of the most overlooked — and one of the most powerful — aspects of employee communication.

We might do a great job of communicating strategic messages on behalf of business leaders. These might include new products the company is launching or new markets it’s entering, investments the company is making and policies that are changing.

We might do an even better job of telling compelling stories about a team’s innovative approach to solving a problem, an employee’s passion for her job or the unique culture at one of the company’s plants.

These might make for interesting content. Employees might enjoy reading these stories on the intranet or hearing the CEO talk about them in town hall meetings. Leaders might believe they’re doing their part to create an environment of open, transparent communication. And they might be right.

But ask employees what’s missing from the information they receive about the business and often they’ll say they want to know the reasons behind company strategy, leaders’ decisions and changes in company policy and procedures.

Why is the why so important? Because it strengthens employee engagement. Sharing lots of information about the business is a good start toward engaging employees, but you can knock the ball out of the park when you start to talk about why. It helps employees put the pieces of the puzzle together and to make sense of the organization’s complexities. It helps them establish “line of sight” between what they do and what the business is trying to do. It helps them understand the reasons for business decisions, even if they don’t like those reasons.

Why is the company acquiring this seemingly unrelated business? Because it provides an entry point into an adjacent market.

Why does the company have such a stringent social media policy? Because it has a strategy when it comes to engaging with consumers and it wants to speak with one voice.

Why is the company laying off 100 people at this plant? Because bringing its cost structure in line with competitors is in the company’s long-term best interest.

Many business leaders forget that employees are investors, too. Even if they don’t invest their money in company stock, they do invest their time, energy and skills in the enterprise. Business leaders would never communicate a major business decision to investors without explaining why they made that decision — at least, if they want investors to continue investing. The same is true of employees. If you want them to continue investing their discretionary effort in your company, answering the why is essential.

Ask Yourself These Questions Before Choosing Social Media

In my research preparing for a presentation at PRSA West Virginia’s recent seminar on social media, I came across some interesting data about social media’s explosive growth. The numbers have probably changed already, but they’re still staggering:

  • Facebook claims more than 500 million users of it service. The average user is connected to 80 pages, events or other communities.
  • More than 30 billion pieces of content are shared on Facebook each month.
  • Twitter has 175 million users; 56 million follow eight or more accounts.
  • LinkedIn has 100 million registered users and is adding 1 million per week.
  • There are more than 7.5 million Foursquare users.

There’s no denying that social media have attracted huge numbers of people. But, as I cautioned the folks who attended the seminar, you need to seek the relevance in the numbers. Astronomical numbers don’t make social media a communications panacea.

Before choosing social media as part of a communication plan, you need to ask yourself some questions, including:

  • How many of these registered users are active?
  • How often do active users log into the service?
  • How long do they stay?
  • What do they do while they’re there?
  • What groups do they join?
  • What brands do they interact with?
  • To what extent do they share their brand experiences with others?
  • Perhaps most important, are these people your target audience? And once you reach them, do you intend to engage with them?

I’m a big believer in social media as another way to reach people. Just as with any media, however, it’s critical to know if social media platforms will help achieve your organization’s communication goals. Primarily, social media are an effective way to reach your organization’s target audiences in order to engage in conversations with them. And those conversations should have a purpose. They must advance your plan’s communication and engagement goals in some way.

The Soup Strategy

Today is a rainy, cool day in Richmond, Va. and I’m not feeling particularly well. Nothing serious, just out of sorts.

It’s the perfect day to make a pot of soup and that is what I’m doing. Right now my house smells like Italian chicken soup. All those herbs are getting cozy with the chicken stock in a slow cooker. Later I’ll add the diced tomatoes, mustard greens and egg noodles.

I’m following my late mother’s recipe. Whenever I smell or taste Italian chicken soup made from her recipe, I think of her, so the comfort quotient on this particular pot of soup is sky-high.

Food is a powerful communication vehicle. It’s a folk art, bridging one generation to the next.

As I pondered that fact, I thought back to a visit I paid my maternal grandmother not too many years before she died. Visits to my grandmother’s house always included her biscuits and gravy for breakfast. There was something unique about her biscuits. They had a tender shell to them, not quite crunchy and not at all dry. According to my grandmother, she achieved this distinctive trait by running the pre-cooked biscuits through some form of fat — either liquid Crisco or bacon drippings or maybe even lard.

My mom used my grandmother’s biscuit recipe when she baked them for us, but the result was not the same. Mom’s biscuits were great, but they were quite different from my grandmother’s. So on my visit I asked my grandmother to share her biscuit-baking technique with me so that I might achieve the same delicious success when I baked them.

She sat at the kitchen table and talked me through the entire process. Step by step, I did everything she told me to do, exactly as she told me to do it.

My biscuits didn’t turn out anything like my grandmother’s. Nor my mother’s for that matter.

I was disappointed, but it doesn’t really matter. What matters is the shared experience among my grandmother, my mother and me. What matters are the memories, the connection and, yes, even the values evoked by the experience of using a recipe that was handed down from my grandmother to my mom, and from my mom to me.

In my work as a communicator, I often am called upon to carefully craft messages so that they convey exactly what my client wants to say, whether it’s a marketing piece, a speech or an employee communication. Words are important; they carry a lot of weight. But what the audience will remember most is the shared experience, the connection that you make, the values you emulate through the communication. That’s why a face-to-face event is such a rich communication tool. That’s why branding is defined as the experience a consumer has with a product or service.

Call it the soup strategy or the biscuit factor or something. If we can get our audiences as invested in some organizational goal as I was in wanting to replicate my grandmother’s biscuits, we’re really getting somewhere.