Businesses again have shown their naiveté about the new realities of digital media by stepping into public issues without thinking of the consequences.
Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy entered the fray over gay marriage by giving an interview to the relatively obscure Baptist Review, then glibly admitting "guilty as charged" to his views opposing same-sex unions. While Cathy's views and the fast food restaurant chain's support of anti-gay organizations wasn't news, his comments caught a wave of interest on social media. Then all hell broke loose.
The Jim Henson Company, which provided toys for Chick-fil-A, disengaged and said it was donating money it made from working with the restaurant chain to pro-gay groups. The mayor of Boston announced Chick-fil-A wouldn't be welcome in his town.
The chain's PR team tried to calm the waters by issuing a statement indicating Chick-fil-A respects all people, regardless of race, religion or sexual orientation, while noting the privately owned company was founded on what it call "biblical principles," including closing its restaurants on Sundays.
The hubbub might have subsided, except conservative GOP figures, led by former presidential candidates Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, took up the cause of defending Cathy and Chick-fil-A by calling for a fan appreciation day at its restaurants. That added more gasoline to the fire.
More mayors weighed in and seven online petitions were launched demanding universities remove Chick-fil-A restaurants from their campuses. Comedians from Jon Stewart on The Daily Show to YouTube chef Hilah Johnson parodied Chick-fil-A. ("The best day to have a Chick-fil-A sandwich? Sunday. The restaurant is closed.")
Worse, the polling organization YouGov reported Chick-fil-A's brand index dropped in about two weeks from a high of 65, before Cathy's anti-gay marriage interview was published and went viral, to 39. Before the interview, Chick-fil-A's brand index was sharply higher than the average of other fast food restaurants. Afterward, it was notably lower than the average of its peer restaurants.
Chick-fil-A has been a long-time sponsor of a college bowl game in Atlanta, its home base. The newly dubbed Chick-fil-A Bowl's website is pitching the idea of playing the new college championship bowl game in Atlanta. The political row set off by Cathy may make that dream an empty wish, not to mention add troubled waters to this year's bowl game.
Cathy and Chick-fil-A are certainly not the first company to get in the middle of the culture war over gay marriage. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos just made a $2.5 million personal donation to support a political campaign to defend a Washington state law permitting gay marriage, which has been referred to the ballot.
Google has launched a "Legalize Love" campaign aimed at eliminating anti-gay policies worldwide. For its pro-gay stance, Starbucks faced a boycott urged by the National Organization for Marriage, which flopped. Kraft Foods took heat when it posted an online photo of a rainbow-hued Oreo cookie and JC Penney was lit up after naming Ellen DeGeneres its spokeswoman.
There is no fixed rule about companies and nonprofit organizations, such as Komen for the Cure, engaging in political activities or activities that are freighted with politics. But if they do, they should be aware of and take into account the consequences of their engagement.
Nobody should act surprised when they are pushed to the fraying edge.