Chick-fil-A Crisis: One for the Ages?

If you're a PR pro, the following statement is probably not what you'd want to hear from your CEO:

"We are very much supportive of the family—the biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that."

That's what Chick-fil-A president and COO Dan Cathy famously said to The Baptist Press on July 16. Since then, the restaurant chain has been on the receiving end of both vehement criticism and spirited support—from the public and politicians across the country.

And the saga continues: It was reported that on Wednesday, Aug. 1, thousands will show up at Chick-fil-A's across the country in a show of support of Cathy's statement, while on Friday, Aug. 3, same-sex couples will be at the restaurants for public displays of affection. Key question: How will events like these, plus continuing online chatter, affect Chick-fil-A's business performance?

While Chick-fil-A sales figures during the controversy are unavailable—the company is private—a report on Bloomberg Businessweek's site says the chain is valued at $4.3 billion and has the biggest sales per unit in the fast-food industry (according to QSR Magazine). Whether that impressive data point  holds up remains to be seen.

But you can bet Chick-fil-A's sales will be an integral metric within the crisis management case study that will surely become part of university communications curricula in the months and years to come. This case will answer a burning question: What happens to a company when it takes a stand on a controversial social issue? We anxiously await the answer.

Follow Scott Van Camp: @svancamp01

  • Alex Lekas

    why exactly would you freak out about your CEO saying something that seems obvious given who he is and how the company is run? No one who knows anything about CFA could possibly be surprised that the company supports the traditional definition of marriage.

    If there is a lesson, it is this: free speech includes no guarantee that others will agree with you, nor is there protection against possible backlash. Opposition or support of the company will fall based on where folks stand on gay marriage. Perhaps being apolitical is a more prudent approach but anyone who claims surprise at Cathy’s answer is lying.

  • Oscar

    I agree. If anything it shows that they stand behind their principles no matter what is at stake. That should be the true business model. I think a true example of bad PR and crisis management is Toms CEO when he back peddled after appearing at a Focus on the Family Event. He claimed he didn’t know what they stood for, and he’s a Christian. Lol

  • Eric

    I agree. I am sure it was not the CEOs intention to have this comment so widely reported, but I don’t see any problem with it. It is truthful and reflects the culture of the company and the CEO’s convictions. Some may disagree with him, but I think the company will be just fine. It won’t hurt their business and they could not buy the coverage that they are getting. They need not be apolitical or areligious. They ought to proudly be who they are and explain their convictions in the sort of direct, plain, vivid language the CEO used.

  • sarah

    I must disagree with these comments. If the Susan G. Komen PR fiasco tells us anything, it shows that political stances – especially controversial ones – hurt your brand image. They will lost business and it will affect their bottom line. People knew of their financial support of these groups previously, but now the CEO is actively pushing an anti-gay view. Brand indexes already show their brand is taking a nosedive.

  • Debbi Tingley

    Disagree. This is about the US constitution and the American dream. Time for PR Pros to hold the media accountable for fair reporting. This man is a trmendous gentleman. And if you knew him, you would not be making these ocmments

  • Lufas

    Some people choose to put their convictions ahead of money and profits. What a novel idea.

  • Karla Thomas

    I completely agree with Sarah; and I totally disagree with everyone else. As a PR pro, no one wants their CEO taking personal stances on public issues. Cathy owns a business and should want any and everyone eating his chicken. And the poor PR executive who tried to walk back the statements in the midst of the storm, but ended up dying on the job is a total tragedy as well. Cathy created this mess and should have had better business acumen than he has shown. Now they just have to ride out the storm while continually stating how fair they are to everyone. What a mess.

  • jharris

    I agree with the majority of comments. Cathy has always been known for his religious stance, the most simple and obvious of which is the fact that all stores are closed on Sundays and all Christian holidays. His PR team certainly wasn’t surprised by his comments–if they were, they should resign or be fired. What I find perplexing is the apparent stance across the nation among various such issues that freedom of speech applies solely to those who are presumed the victims of an issue or circumstance. It works both ways–doesn’t it? Cathy stance indicates that he is not worried about a nosedive in profits. The principles that got him where he is will surely sustain him.

  • John

    I think this shows that PR people need to check THEIR political positions at the door. 100’s of thousands turned out to support CFA; a few attended the “kiss-in’s”. If Susan G. Komen stood their ground, they would have prevailed as well. That was a free speech case, too, by the way. Note the different outcomes. There’s your lesson.

  • John

    Better business acumen? He grew an empire out of putting two pickles and butter on a chicken sandwich. As PR pros, you should know who you work for and what the company’s values are. Again, check your own politics at the door and see the situation for what it is.