Anybody who has ever taken a close look at Chick-fil-A knows that it is a company whose culture is heavily influenced by the Christian beliefs of its key executives, namely CEO &Chairman S. Truett Cathy, and President & CEO Dan Cathy. The company is closed on Sunday – a rarity in the world of fast food – and the Cathys have long been open about their beliefs. So it really should have come as no surprise that when interviewed by Baptist Press, and questioned about his views on marriage, Dan Cathy noted that he supported a Biblical view of marriage. This, in turn, was taken by gay marriage advocates that he was against gay marriage, and touched off a heated shouting match that led to a boycott of Chick-fil-A, a counter-movement of a “Chick-fil-A appreciation day,” and endless conversation about it.

Personally, I did not notice the furor until I saw that Jim Henson productions had pulled its toys from Chick-fil-A meals in protest over Cathy’s comments (and moreso, the Cathy’s financial contributions to groups like the Family Research Council.) What got me wasn’t that Henson had pulled out, but that Chick-fil-A suffered a couple of embarassing social media blunders from it all. First, a picture of Chick-fil-A’s spin on why the toys were pulled in the first place was less than honest. Later, Chick-fil-A was accused of creating fake Facebook accounts to deflect criticism of the chain. After that, Chick-fil-A’s VP of PR suffered a fatal heart attack, presumably from the stress of all the attention.

At this point, the issue had become a national distraction, and like heat on a boil, drew forth everybody’s opinion about it. My personal views on this issue are, to be frank, irrelevant, to our audience here. But there is a takeaway from all of this that insurance professionals would do well to heed. The first, and most superficial lesson is that it’s never a good idea to try to get tricky when dealing with a negative PR event. Chick-fil-A inflicted needless reputational damage to itself early on, not with Cathy’s comments, but with the clumsy way in which it tried to game the PR system. Bottom line: when engaging with your audience online, be honest. The Internet is the world’s largest body of self-appointed detectives. If you try to pull one over on it, you will be found out. Fact.

But really, this is just a minor note in a larger discussion. The major point here is that far more often than not, discrimination against a particular group of people is rarely good for business. This is not the same as being supportive of a particular group of people, of course, even though sometimes the two can become the same thing.

Let’s take a hypothetical example using fictitious companies. If the CEO of Mjolnir Life Insurance were to note in an interview on LifeHealthPro that he supported the definition of Ragnarok as described in Norse myth, that’s an affirmative sign of support for something. But since that same mythos in general, and the concept of Ragnarok in particular, says that giants are evil, he’s also supporting the villainization of giants. When giants find out about this, they’re likely to protest against Mjolnir Life, perhaps even going so far as the take their business over to Jotunheim Life Insurance instead. People vote with their dollars all the time, as is their right. Clearly they have done so in the situation with Chick-fil-A, both for and against.

Chick-fil-A appreciation day
Customers gather by the hundreds outside the Gilbert, Ariz Chick-fil-A restaurant, Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2012. Chick-fil-A supporters are packing the chicken chain’s restaurants as the company continues to be criticized for an executive taking a public position against same-sex marriage. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister, declared Wednesday “Chick-fil-AAppreciation Day.” (AP Photo/Matt York)

 

I think that the best approach to take in business is simply to not present one’s politics or beliefs to the public at all. Most people take a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell policy” toward the goods and services they buy, because if they looked hard enough, they could probably find a political or cultural reason to boycott 90% of the things they spend money on. So, folks simply agree to not ask about the company’s politics, or that of its owners, and they enjoy their chicken sandwich or sneakers or insurance or whatever.

Sometimes a company’s behavior or stance on something becomes known on their own and folks decide to stop doing business with them because while they won’t go examining a company’s agendas, they won’t ignore them once they are out in the open, either. (Such was the case with my family, and where we bought clothing for our daughter. She favored one chain that had cool, cheap clothes. But we also recalled reading that the chain used sweatshops to make that clothing, which we don’t agree with, so we took our business elsewhere. That elsewhere probably used sweatshops, too. We don’t know. But we weren’t about to ask, either, and that is how most folks prefer it, I think.)

Where this gets tricky is when a company decides to make it known publicly what its views on a non-business issue are. And this is the case with Chick-fil-A. Nobody heard Cathy talking in his sleep when he said he supported a Biblical definition of marriage. He said that in an interview with Baptist magazine in a kind of double affirmation. He accepted the interview. He answered the question. He wanted people to know how he felt about it. And when they did, some of them responded negatively. That’s the way it goes. And frankly, that seems to be how Cathy himself wanted it, despite the fact that his stance on marriage is irrelevant to the quality of Chick-fil-A chicken sandwiches. 

I doubt very strongly that Chick-fil-A will feel any significant pain if the entire homosexual community and those who sympathize with it never again eat another Chick-fil-A sandwich. For a lot of these folks, it’s all about sending a message: “We don’t support a Biblical definition of marriage.” That so many subsequently turned out to say, “Well, we do. And we’ll have fries with that, while we’re at it,” shows how strongly the issue slants in terms of demographics. There are, of course, people who don’t care about any of this, and they simply will eat at Chick-fil-A because it’s tasty, regardless of its opinions. Chick-fil-A could come out and say that all blue-eyed people should be exiled to Antarctica, and there will still be some blue-eyed customers who will get a bag of Chick-fil-A to eat on the plane ride to McMurdo Station because darn it, those are some awesome waffle fries.

Chick-fil-A waffle fries

I think the real point here, personal politics aside, is that companies rarely profit by breaking that cardinal rule of dinner table talk – no sex, religion or politics. (Certainly in the case of gay rights, sex, politics and religion tend to all cross paths, making for an especially volatile topic of conversation.) So when companies do decide to weigh in publicly on hot topics, they invite criticism. Sometimes that criticism doesn’t matter. Sometimes it does. In all cases, though, is it really worth the risk, or the trouble that goes along with it? As a business decision, probably not.

I say this recalling a kind of reverse version of this situation some years ago when Disney announced it would extend spousal benefits to same-sex partners working for the company, and there was a boycott of DisneyWorld that accomplished exactly nothing except driving up park attendance. But sometimes boycotts and protests do wreak pretty awful reputational damage that directly impacts the bottom line (BP, following the spill in the Gulf is a good example), and if you’re running a business, shouldn’t be that what matters? This is why I agree with the main point of Corey Dahl’s recent editorial on Chick-fil-A here on LifeHealthPro, if not the degree to which she used her personal feelings to express it: Chick-fil-A, like any other company, would do well to just leave things go unmentioned so we can all eat our chicken sandwiches and waffle fries in peace.

Frankly, I think the wider business community could learn a lot by following the insurance industry’s example, which makes public statements only to support charitable causes or to explain its own business decisions. Insurers are so often under fire when they haven’t actually done anything wrong that as an industry, it has become very, very cautious with how it behaves in public, because insurers know that if even if they made diamonds rain from the sky, somebody would complain about how much it scratched the paint job on their car. And so, when the industry does decide to weigh in on matters of public interest, especially those with a regulatory bent, they do so through their trade groups, or through individuals, quietly turning the gears to get an outcome that works for them. On matters of cultural interest, insurers typically just stay quiet; it really has nothing to do with their business, so they let it all go because they just don’t need the complication. Having written far more about Chick-fil-A than I ever intended to these past few days, I can appreciate the sentiment. In fact, it’s time for me to follow my own advice and stop talking about it altogether and focus on the fact that I now have a nearly uncontrollable need for some waffle fries.