I’ve resisted the urge to blog on this as this is the kind of topic that no matter what you say you are going to offend someone or some group. And that is the saddest thing about the whole Chick-fil-A controversy. But I was asked by Matt Wilson of Ragan for a comment so it forced me to work through my very conflicted feelings about this issue. So let me apologize in advance if anything I say offends you–such is the danger of speaking one’s mind today.
In my view, everyone should be sad and concerned about this controversy. It says far more about our culture and values than it does about Chick-fil-A and its PR problems. We live in a time of pluralism, openness, tolerance. That is a good thing because it is a reaction against the intolerance, hatred and violence that is far too common in our past. The sad thing is that this kind of situation is showing that we are not making progress in more tolerance and openness–we are just changing those things that we are willing to be tolerant about. Those who promote acceptance of gays and lesbians are also often completely intolerant and incredibly hateful toward those who they see as intolerant and hateful toward gays and lesbians (which incidentally it seems is anyone who doesn’t share their same level of commitment to promoting their position.)
That doesn’t answer the question about Chick-fil-A and its problems, not the least of which is the sudden death of its long time PR manager. Because of the comments of its president, the company has found itself in the crossfire of a deep cultural divide, or culture war as some describe it. This is not a good thing for business in general. I would think the company would prefer people choose or not choose it based on its offerings of food, pricing and atmosphere rather than any stand that it takes on a controversial topic. But, the horse has left the barn on this one, so to speak. Since Chick-fil-A is primarily located in the South and East (143 locations in North Carolina, 1 in New York), it is aligned with the more conservative tendencies of those areas. The more the opponent/activists of the company try to pressure it based on boycotts or protests, the more it will create a reaction on the part of those supportive of the president’s statements. This may actually help the company in terms of sales short term as the Facebook scoring would indicate.
As of this writing the pro-Chick-fil-A anti-protest was registering 600,000 commitments to go and eat at the restaurant chains, while 9000 registered to be part of the same-sex kiss protest on Facebook.
However, long term, this is not likely to be positive for Chick-fil-A or for any business that gets so deeply embroiled in a political hot topic. Expanding to new locations (such as in Boston), particularly out of the areas where it is now strong, will likely prove challenging as it may draw protests and activism in those communities. Chick-fil-A has become a lightning rod for anyone looking for political advantage which will further harm its efforts to escape this and go back to providing good food. I don’t see a lot of options for it other than to do what it has been doing which is to say the policy of the company is non-discrimination and treating all its customers as highly valued. That will not satisfy either side of this issue. I do think, however, that the president and other senior executives will be more cautious about their personal views on this kind of topic. Chick-fil-A is privately owned so the owners can decide what is more important to them–the long term health of the organization or being open in expressing personal views. If it was publicly owned, there would be no question; the execs have a fiduciary responsibility to the shareholders and any executive that decides to use their business position to promote a position on a controversial topic at the expense of the financial performance of the company would likely lose his or her job.
And that brings us back to why this is so sad and troublesome. Clearly, if a business decides to use that business as a promotional tool or advocacy opportunity for a highly controversial issue, they are choosing to have customers choose for them or against them on that basis. If Chick-fil-A put up posters and used placemats promoting a traditional definition of marriage, they would clearly expect business to be affected by that choice. That’s not the case here as far as I can tell. The president made comments about his own personal opinion in a non-business setting and the firestorm resulted.
The overall result will be the increasing reluctance to openly express opinions on controversial topics. For those of the Internet crowd who so enjoy their freedom to openly express their strong opinions anonymously online, this should be of great concern. They are lovers and protectors of free speech. There is more than one way to kill freedom of speech and right now I see it being killed by political correctness and remarkable intolerance in the name of tolerance. We will see if those who criticize Chick-fil-A are true devotees of free speech or are supportive of free speech so long as it conforms to their views.