Mock media sessions are sometimes purposefully designed to make people feel uncomfortable and elicit accidental or intentional reactions. The regional vice president being interviewed was doing surprisingly well, until I asked him a series of loaded questions, consisting of the softball set-up and rapid-fire take downs.
"What percentage of your employees are minorities?"
"The majority," he said.
"Yes, and what percentage are in upper management positions?"
The color quickly washed out of his face. He knew as well as I did that there was no easy answer. He could tell the truth, opening up a discussion about discrimination. He could lie and say he didn't know, painting himself as incompetent.
"Now, let's talk about how many of those minorities are African-Americans, specifically," I added, already knowing the answer. If I were a real reporter at the time, I could have done anything.
Dan Cathy was trapped into a public relations maelstrom of his own making.
When Dan Cathy, president and chief operating officer of Chick-fil-A, gave a speech at the University of Mobile, he set himself up to be duped after the event. Cathy, who was likely talking about dress codes and personal appearance at Chick-fil-A when he said "If a man's got an earring in his ear and applies to work at one of my restaurants, we won't even talk to him."
He might have used mohawks or face tattoos or devil horn implants or any number of lifestyle choices that don't always mesh with other lifestyle choices as an example, but he didn't. He asked the softball set-up question I might have asked in a mock media session, giving someone else the opportunity to hammer with a hardball follow up.
Would you hire gay people at your restaurant?
"It depends on the circumstances," he said. But he didn't convincingly explain that he meant circumstances based on appearance, history, and reputation (as the chain uses to hire heterosexual applicants).
Only July 16, he went further by continuing this conversation direction with the Baptist Press, saying his goal was to operate the chain "on Biblical principles." On its own, it would have been fine, but the foundation of a different context was already established.
In fact, just to make sure it was understood what he meant, Cathy said that the company had taken a position against same-sex marriage. And that's how it goes. Executives without enough media training will dig their own holes if you let them.
I understand how and why it happens, but let's point out the obvious. Companies don't need to take a position on gay marriage. Even companies that have a Christian heritage don't need to pick a side. Companies are expected to be true to their mission statements.
"Be America's Best Quick-Service Restaurant." — Chick-fil-A mission statement
Color me crazy, but I don't see how taking a position against same-sex marriage makes chicken better. Naturally, the only answer is one the company is attempting to elevate now: "The Chick-fil-A culture and service tradition in our restaurants is to treat every person with honor, dignity and respect — regardless of their belief, race, creed, sexual orientation, or gender.
Unfortunately, it's too little too late. The debate has shifted. And while there are many ways to dissect the Chick-fil-A public relations nightmare, the most important observations have little to do with public relations and everything to do with a nation struggling to find its direction on a wildly politicized issue.
It's loaded with fear. It's loaded with emotion. It's best to stay far, far away from picking sides. Not many people can do it as successfully as Bill Marriott, especially because it's much harder today.
The tenets of separating personal/professional views are crumbling.
From a strategic communication viewpoint, the communication mistake became a crisis as soon as some people decided there was something to win. You can say the same about any crisis today. When education surrenders to exploitation, the argument descends into diatribe. Everybody will lose.
The challenge for public relations professionals temporarily, if not permanently, is to manage the mixed messages they receive as it relates to the personal/professional rub up. While modern tenets are preaching there is plenty to gain by infusing your personal views into your professional life, few pros have the training or tools to do it right. Even if they do, someone might exploit their position.
Chick-fil-A is a complex issue that warrants exploration as a living case study, with a little less politics and a lot more patience. At the moment, the public relations maelstrom is best described as out of control and the company is probably making a mistake to think it will go away. It might, but maybe not.
The real tragedy here is that it might have gone away, but some people on both sides of the argument want to to exploit this as a communication mistake and make it a symbol. Their actions (both sides) have consequences, even if neither side will have to suffer for it. Instead, those who suffer will be franchise owners and employees who want make a living and the customers who go there to eat chicken.
Much like I later advised the pool builder, companies have to avoid loaded questions and stick to the facts. The pool builder always promoted people based on experience and performance, without consideration of anything else. They hired the people the same way.