Chick-fil-A: Love thy neighbor, eat more chicken

Have you ever stepped in doo-doo and wished you hadn’t? That sentiment defines the public imbroglio over Chick-fil-A and President Dan Cathy’s recent clarification of the company’s views on marriage. The clarification, which was followed by a cold company statement that was basically perceived as “hey, wait a second, some of our best customers are gay,” has created a firestorm during an otherwise quiet period preceding the Olympics.

At the core, Cathy’s walk into quick sand was self inflected and has become a public issue that now threatens the beloved company’s chicken sandwich. Some observers call it a gay rights, political or social issue while others believe it’s an attack on traditional Christian values. That may all be true, but it misses the point that not even a politically motivated Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day on Aug. 1st can re-discover.

Publicly held corporations have an obligation to stakeholders to report on their business, which may or may not include social issues. A subset even feel compelled to comment on public policies impacting their business. Private companies, on the other hand, are generally closely held and only accountable to themselves. Chick-fil-A falls in the latter category.

Younger audiences who now control the on-line sphere, which by the way has been flaming this issue for months, do not tend to make public vs private distinctions. Mainly because few know what they mean. If you happen to be a known entity or brand name in Chick-fil-A’s case, then what you say will be reviewed, scrutinized or flamed if something is perceived as “uncool.” Throw in a potentially contentious social issue, such as gay marriage during an election year, and well you’ve now started a fire that not even the best fire starter knows how to put out. On Wednesday alone, 7,000 Facebook fans commented on the Chick-fil-A fan page following the news cycle featuring the Muppets dropping their affiliation. It’s probably a good thing Facebook hasn’t developed a dislike button yet. Here’s a really shrill example that might produce a few squirms:

Couple this reality with the company’s stodgy homespun culture based in the Southeast pitted against the highly vocal gay and lesbian community and you’ve got a culture war chasm, which is going to be filled like a vacuum. Notice how the Christian values factor has not been underlined even though it carries weight as the original spark. Taking that thought a step further from a true believer point of view…

What if the topic for discussion on the Baptist blog where Cathy made his comments had been different? What if, for example, Cathy was asked to share his views on Jesus Christ being the only direct way to God? Do you think that would have offended enough of a mass to warrant public outrage? It’s always about context and how what you’re saying fits into a larger story vs. how you view it yourself. We all hold beliefs, but when it comes to public disclosure, how those beliefs are framed nearly always depends on factors out of your control. The media love a conflict, too but that’s beside the point.

Okay, not all media. A friend who also happens to be a published author and journalist framed the situation this way: “I like to think of Christianity as one of the world’s most tolerant religions. I think executives who include tolerance as part of their values can bring at least a bit of personal religious faith into their approach to work with generally good results. That would be true, in fact, for any religious beliefs, Christian or otherwise. When intolerance is braided into the mix, that’s a recipe for trouble.”

A Christian business leader may have put it best: “It seems as though we have forgotten the Great Commandment to leap frog to the Great Commission.” Well said and applicable to this latest outburst.

Finally, for the best encapsulation yet from a secular business leadership POV, go to http://mobile.businessweek.com/articles/2012-07-26/god-and-gay-marriage-what-chick-fil-a-could-learn-from-marriott

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