Soon after the U.S. Supreme Court in June ruled the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, Chick-fil-A President-COO Dan Cathy chimed in on his Twitter account about the decision.
“Sad day for our nation; founding fathers would be ashamed of our gen. to abandon wisdom of the ages re: cornerstone of strong societies.” Cathy, who is no stranger to controversy regarding gay rights, was none too pleased with the ruling. But the company, in turn, wasn’t too pleased with Cathy’s tweet, apparently, which was quickly deleted.
Chick-fil-A went one step further and released the following statement: “Yesterday, President and COO of Chick-fil-A Dan Cathy tweeted a personal comment upon hearing the Supreme Court decisions on DOMA and Prop 8. Dan recognizes his views do not necessarily represent the views of all Chick-fil-A customers, restaurant owners and employees, so he removed the tweet to eliminate any confusion.”
The statement added: “At Chick-fil-A, we are focused on providing great-tasting food and genuine hospitality to everyone.” Chick-fil-A could not be reached for additional comment.
Chick-fil-A is reportedly looking to expand beyond its Southeast roots and didn’t need another media grilling like the one it got last summer when Cathy told religious publications that he and his family-owned restaurant is “guilty as charged” for financially supporting groups that advocate “the biblical definition of a family unit,” according to Business Insider.
Aside from trying to mitigate a potential crisis, Chick-fil-A’s move also raises some key questions about the role communications execs can play when the boss makes vituperative comments that could have a negative impact on the brand.
“It’s good that the CEO feels he or she is the embodiment of the brand, but with that comes a mantle of responsibility that the CEO’s performance and behavior reflect positively on the brand,” said John Deveney, president of Deveney Communication. “It’s problematic when CEOs think the brand ought to follow the CEO.”
He added that to get a better sense of C-level execs’ personal beliefs —and whether publicly voicing those beliefs could cause some blowback among consumers—PR pros have to take preventative measures.
“You need a very candid audit of the C-level and what their issues are,” Deveney said. “You may work for a mining company, so your personal opinion on organic coffee is irrelevant to the organization and to your role as its corporate communicator. The same analogy is even more true for the CEO. If the CEO has an opinion that doesn’t endear the audience or advance the brand, it should be left at home.”
Richard Levick, chairman-CEO of Levick and co-author of “The Communicators: Leadership in the Age of Crisis,” stressed that PR pros have to recognize that the rules have changed when it comes to corporate chieftains thinking they can say anything so long as it doesn’t offend the core constituency.
SEVEN CEO SINS
“In an era of transparency, audiences you didn’t think you had are looking at [your brand] with a very interested eye,” Levick said. “The world has changed radically and what the CEO might say in the hallway now gets tweeted. The hyper-democratization of the digital world makes people think they can say anything.”
But that’s not so. Levick recommends that PR execs follow “Seven Survival Strategies When the CEO Goes Rogue.”
1. Determine the severity of the sin. There are a thousand “shades of grey” and every case is different, but the first question the company must ask itself, Levick said, is: “Can the CEO regain the trust of our consumers and stakeholders?”
2. Determine the Investor Relations (IR) response. Private companies usually have fewer audiences so there is more latitude. Public companies have an audience of shareholders to cater to, and their concerns need to be gauged and addressed by the board.
3. Determine whether the CEO’s brand can be distanced from that of the company. If the two can be reasonably separated, they should be via statements that the sin does not reflect the company’s values. If they can’t, a much more aggressive response is necessary.
4. Determine how the sin relates to the company’s brand. The same sin can be judged differently among different audiences, Levick said. “If Chick-fil-A’s most important markets weren’t in the Bible Belt, we would have seen a far more aggressive response,” Levick said.
5. Determine how the sin’s timing affects its impact. Timing is everything—and sometimes demands a more aggressive response than would normally be called for.
6. Determine the cost/benefit of sticking with an embattled CEO. Sometimes, a CEO is so visionary and essential to success that the company can afford to take the temporary reputation hit that comes with standing by him or her, according to Levick.
7. Determine how much goodwill resides in the CEO’s trust bank. Has the CEO built up enough credibility and trust to be given the benefit of the doubt for one misstep?
‘TAKE A STEP BACK’
For Mike Paul, president of MGP & Associates, senior PR execs have to put on “our counseling tool belt and use the skills of a psychologist” in order to understand what makes the CEO tick, and assuage any beliefs that could backfire on the company.
“If the [CEO] has hubris in one area you may have to go to another area that makes him or her take a step back,” Paul said.
He added, “You’ve got to have a comparison that [XYZ comment] may end up hurting his own family and other important stakeholders. You have to learn to melt a heart that has a steel trap in it.” PRN
The Proof is in the Preparation
Knowing the cultural and philosophical stance of a company helps PR pros prepare for unexpected (and unwanted) situations, even when caused by internal leadership. When a CEO follows a creative streak or decides to take communication into his or her own hands, an action plan is a must-have to keep in your PR back pocket. Knowing what to do (and when) will maintain brand integrity and possibly gain positive awareness in the process.
For in-house PR roles, are you ready for when your CEO announces that she’s anti-recycling or pro-hormone-fed-chicken? What if you work at an agency and your client calls with an urgent need? Its president has just announced his early retirement to join the circus. Real situations arise, and when they do it is vital to implement your response immediately.
The work is in the preparation, which begins way before the crisis itself. Here are some initial action steps you can take to help craft a best-case scenario:
• Assess the realities of your workplace or client.
• Sit down with leadership and start the conversation.
• Make it your mission to educate, educate, educate.
• Explain the power of the media and public opinion.
• Determine whether media training should be deployed.
Just remember, controversy is lurking around the corner. It’s a matter of knowing when and how to deflect and sometimes resurrect a brand’s position in the public space.
Erica Normand is a senior account executive at Deveney Communication. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
John Deveney, email@example.com; Richard Levick, firstname.lastname@example.org; Mike Paul, email@example.com.
This article appeared in the July 22 issue of PR News. Subscribe to PR News today to receive weekly comprehensive coverage of the most fundamental PR topics from visual storytelling to crisis management to media training.