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.






IABC Drops the Ball Again, Then Goes Into Defensive Mode

For three years in the mid-1990s, I served on the International Executive Board of IABC. In 1993 and 2003, I served as the president of my local chapter. I was an Accredited Business Communicator until I gave up my membership in favor of PRSA (non-members have to pay a fee to maintain accreditation). I’ve served on committees and task forces at all three levels of the association and I happily sang its praises to anyone who would listen until IABC lost its way several years ago.

So I don’t take any pleasure in what is happening to IABC these days. Late last year, it bungled the communication of a major layoff of headquarters staff. And just yesterday, it dropped the ball again in its announcement that Chris Sorek, president of the association for the last 11 months, has resigned.

As a non-member, I no longer have a vested interest in what happens to IABC. But as someone who gave heart and soul to help ensure its success for many years, it breaks my heart to see one of the world’s largest associations for people in my chosen profession become a laughingstock. Actually, there’s nothing funny about what’s going on.

The main points I’ll make about this latest tragedy of errors are these:

  1. IABC’s staff and volunteer leaders need to update their view of how communication happens in the world. Claiming it wanted to inform chapter leaders first, IABC delayed its own announcement of Sorek’s resignation and the news apparently broke on David Murray’s Writing Boots blog. (David used to cover IABC when he worked for The Ragan Report in the ’90s, including during my term on the International Executive Board, so I know his journalistic prowess and it does not surprise me that he broke the news.) Then, IABC finally posted the announcement on a LinkedIn discussion group because it said its technology “would not allow” it to be posted on its own website. Believing that you can keep news like this secret in the age of social media is naïve at best and irresponsible at worst. Instead, IABC leaders — both staff and volunteers — should have sent an alert to volunteer leaders and followed it very closely with official announcements using all the platforms available, including its own website. (There is simply no excuse for not being able to use its own website to post such an announcement.) Then, all hands should have been on deck to respond to the initial flurry of interest by bloggers like Murray and industry journalists like those at Ragan.com. Talking points are fine to ensure consistency, but the point here is that leaders should have been armed and ready to talk as soon as the news broke instead of appearing disconnected and aloof.
  2. IABC spokespersons should give up their defensiveness, acknowledge that the association is in rough shape right now with respect to its leadership, its technology and its communication processes, and stop trying to control and spin the message. Again, this is 2013. The rules (if there are any) have changed. Claire Watson, ABC, who has been hired to speak for the association, defensively engaged in one LinkedIn conversation that included her questioning Murray’s ethics and those of volunteer leaders and her eventual pronouncement, “End of conversation.” That’s not the way to engage media or members and it certainly sends the wrong message about how IABC might handle things going forward.

I sincerely hope IABC uses these crises as opportunities to look deep within and to rethink not only its strategy for growing and sustaining the association, but also how it communicates and engages with members — who, after all, own IABC.


Busted? Five Plays from the Crisis Handbook

Three politicians in my hometown of Richmond, Va., are learning the hard way that when you find yourself challenged on issues of ethics — or any issue, really — it’s always best to take the up-front and honest route.

Shonda M. Harris-Muhammed, a Richmond City School Board member, is embroiled in a controversy over her claim that she earned a doctorate through an online university. The diploma mill denies she completed the requirements for the degree and Harris-Muhammed can’t seem to prove it, but she remains defiant. The story won’t go away and gets more embarrassing for the school system — which itself is struggling in terms of its reputation — with every headline.

Frustratingly for parents and school officials, there seems to be little anyone can do to make Harris-Muhammed and her indignation go away because several years ago Richmond voters decided to elect school board members and a recall seems unlikely.

Meanwhile, at the State Capitol, two of Virginia’s top elected officials can’t seem to escape the muck around gifts they received from the CEO of a Richmond-based company — some of which they reported in accordance with the law, but some of which they apparently did not. Gov. Bob McDonnell claims some of the gifts were to his family members, not to him personally. Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli also had to amend previous gift disclosures and successfully gained recusal from defending the state in a lawsuit brought by the company.

Politics are no doubt driving how these three are responding to their ethical challenges. And the world of politics often seems to spin in its own orbit, separate in some ways from the business world or the rest of the world. However, if the school board member, the governor and the attorney general want to survive these trying times with their integrity intact, they could take a page from any public relations playbook that includes guidance on crisis communications or reputation management:

  • Get out in front of the problem. It’s too late for these three, but don’t wait for a crisis to become a crisis before taking steps to manage it. Many businesses have people whose responsibilities include issues management — scanning the environment for potential issues or problems that might flare up and planning how to avoid or respond to them. Of course, if you don’t believe you’ve done anything wrong, it might be a moot point.
  • Own up to mistakes. Publics are intolerant of people and organizations that make excuses or try to justify actions that those publics believe are wrong. On the other hand, people love a good redemption story. Exhibit A: Mark Sanford.
  • Redirect the conversation to what you’re doing to correct the problem. Rather than make excuses, talk about specific actions you’re taking to make sure you never make the same mistake again. Everything you say should focus on action — not blame, promises, intentions or platitudes.
  • Be truthful and transparent. Even when it hurts. In these days of 24-hour news cycles, social media and citizen journalists, the truth will be found out. You can either be the one who tells it, or be the one who hides it while others tell their version of it.
  • Clean up your act. Never make the same mistake again.

The last one seems to be the most difficult step, especially for people in power.

A Lesson in Social Media: Turn Off the Robo-Tweets During Tragedy

You can forgive us Americans if our nerves were a bit raw yesterday. An iconic sporting event turned into another senseless tragedy when two bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon finish line.

So, as people turned to social media to get updates from news organizations, to console each other and even to track down friends and family who were near the scene, very few were in the mood to get run-of-the-mill marketing pitches in their Twitter streams — especially from a widely followed social media guru.

That’s what happened, though, as Guy Kawasaki asked his 1.2 million followers, “Ready to get your writer’s edge?” and then linked them to the sign-up page for one of his upcoming events. Kawasaki bills himself as the “former chief evangelist of Apple” and now is an independent social media consultant.

Many of his followers were incensed. Clearly, the spam that continued from his feed as news spread about the deadly blast was auto-generated. But as a number of people pointed out, he could have — and should have — cut the damn thing off for a while.

Soon, it became apparent that Kawasaki himself was back at the controls, but it didn’t help. Rather than admit appearing insensitive — even if due to a technological miscue — Kawasaki was defensive and arrogant. “Loving how people with less than 1,500 followers are telling me how to tweet.”


The outcry only grew louder, and deservedly so. “Because that is a measure of knowledge??” tweeted one follower. “It’s nice to see that having a million followers does not guarantee a person will have any sense of humanity, tact or humility,” posted another.

The lessons here should be obvious, but for the record:

  • Technology is great, but it still requires a human touch. There are some decisions a computer just can’t make.
  • Social media is about building relationships. You can’t build relationships with a machine.
  • Part of building relationships is not coming off as an insensitive jerk at a time when your audience calls out what it deems to be offensive behavior.
  • Sheer number of followers alone does not make you an expert or automatically confer good judgment.
  • There still seems to be a mystical aura around social media, even after several years of it becoming part of the business communication mainstream. This is propagated in part by self-proclaimed experts in the field. But really, the principles governing social media are essentially the same as any other vehicle, including: Build and maintain relationships. Be transparent. Treat your audience with respect.

Lance Armstrong’s PR Strategy

Lance Armstrong is expected to confess to Oprah Winfrey this week that he did, in fact, take performance-enhancing drugs for at least 15 years, including while winning seven Tour de France titles.

Sadly, observers and commentators already are painting Armstrong’s mea culpa as a public relations ploy. Even more sadly, they’re probably right.

New York Daily News sports columnist Mike Lupica noted that “Lance once again thinks he is in control of this narrative. It’s not like he’s going to reveal any secrets here.”

I can hear the public relations consultants now: “Just spill your guts, Lance. Cry if you have to. Talk about how sorry you are and admit that you disgraced yourself and the sport. Say how sorry you are for dragging your critics through the mud. Then, sit back and wait because your fans and the sport will forgive you.”

That’s a pretty standard public relations strategy when your client is an egotistical, lying cheater. But it’s a terrible strategy if you’re a self-respecting public relations professional who has even a sliver of conscience.

It could be that the strategy will work. It has worked before. Bill Clinton, anybody? Charlie Sheen? Mel Gibson?

There are a few idealists around who still believe personal integrity, honor and professionalism are more important than money. We would advise our client in this situation to confess if you want to, but then get ready to pay your dues. Take the whipping like a man. Accept what’s coming to you, and do it with true humility. Right the wrongs without regard to what it might do to your brand. Don’t expect redemption. Just do it because it’s the right thing to do.

But it seems those idealists aren’t retained for very long.

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.