FRANKLIN, Tenn. (BP) -- By now the story is well-known: Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy, who is a Christian, expressed personal support for traditional marriage in an interview posted by Baptist Press from North Carolina Baptists' Biblical Recorder newsjournal. Cathy's statements unleashed charges of Chick-fil-A being "anti-gay" amid a torrent of vitriol toward a company that by every measure has been a model corporate citizen.
Among those with ruffled feathers were mayors in several cities who threatened to block the openings of Chick-fil-A restaurants simply because they don't agree with Cathy's personal views. Others made extraordinarily hateful comments and threatened to boycott the restaurant chain or take other action.
On Wednesday (Aug. 1), we saw the results: A classic PR backfire that scorched the critics and gave Chick-fil-A a media bonanza.
While the controversy is far from over, at least four PR lessons can be learned from the events of recent days.
First, be very careful with boycotts because they can do more harm than good, especially in terms of perceptions.
The millions and millions of people who saw pictures on the evening news and Internet of long lines streaming into Chick-fil-A restaurants around the country will long remember those images, as will the protestors who took a PR shellacking by this massive rebuke. There are companies whose policies I don't like, but rather than calling them names and trying to organize boycotts against them, I simply shop elsewhere. People who don't agree with Mr. Cathy's values ought to consider just eating elsewhere.
Second, this episode is instructive in reinforcing how quickly a crisis can strike.
The president of a company that has rarely if ever seen much in the way of controversy made remarks some found offensive and wham -- the entire restaurant chain is suddenly in the crosshairs of a national firestorm.
Third, the value of having third-party influencers come to your organization's defense cannot be overstated.
Gov. Mike Huckabee, Billy Graham and Rick Warren are among scores of leaders who defended Chick-fil-A. Ted Cruz, who just won the Republican nomination in the Texas Senate run-off race, served Chick-fil-A at his victory party. A major Wendy's franchise owner put "We stand with Chick-fil-A" on his restaurants' signs. Chick-fil-A didn't have to lift a finger to defend itself; instead, a panoply of supporters did that for the chain.
Fourth, the incredible speed at which social media can spread the word is a game-changer.
Huckabee conceived the idea of an appreciation day, and word zipped across the Internet through a special Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day Facebook page, Twitter and other channels. This was the grapevine in action exponentially.
Regardless of what one believes about how marriage should be defined, the attacks struck a nerve among fair-minded, freedom-loving people who turned out in droves to participate in Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day.
Here was a positive, tangible way for them to express their support for a company they admire while at the same time defend values to which they adhere. For untold thousands, showing up and buying a meal during Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day was a way to register their protests against what they saw as hypocrisy on the part of many of the same people who routinely lecture others about the need for tolerance and diversity.
The majority spoke peacefully yet decisively. They clearly demonstrated that they are tired of being bullied by elements in our politically correct society that seek to control what they say, think and do. The majority voted with their pocketbooks, and the result was a record-setting day for Chick-fil-A.
Don Beehler is a public relations consultant and writer in Franklin, Tennessee. This article is adapted from his blog at http://donbeehler.wordpress.com.