Own a major business? You may want to think twice about commenting on contentious social issues, because your product could become an emblem in the culture wars. And that isn't always a good thing.
So thinks Chick-fil-A CEO and President Dan Cathy, who now says he regrets his 2012 comments about gay marriage, even though he hasn't changed his personal opinion about the matter.
"Every leader goes through different phases of maturity, growth, and development, and it helps by [recognizing] the mistakes that you make," Cathy told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "And you learn from those mistakes. If not, you're just a fool. I'm thankful that I lived through it and I learned a lot from it."
Last summer Cathy tweeted — and quickly deleted — that he was disappointed with a Supreme Court ruling to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act. But now he says, "Consumers want to do business with brands that they can interface with, that they can relate with," he continued. "And it's probably very wise from our standpoint to make sure that we present our brand in a compelling way that the consumer can relate to."
Recall how Chick-fil-A ended up on the frontlines of the culture wars: Cathy told Baptist Press in 2012 that when it came to opposing gay marriage on religious grounds, he was "guilty as charged." Numerous groups called for boycotts. That inspired a contra, pro-chicken contingent, including former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee declaring a "Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day." Chick-fil-A did enough business that day to set a company record.
It's no secret that Chick-fil-A is owned by devout Christians; its company policy is to close on Sundays, which it says "is unique to the restaurant business and a testament to [the founder's] faith in God." But the company has tried to distance itself from Cathy's gay-marriage comments. And in 2012, its charitable foundation stopped donating to groups deemed by supporters of same-sex marriage as antigay.
But it didn't matter. Some cities, such as Boston, moved to ban the chain anyway. A number of colleges have blocked or suspended ties with Chick-fil-A, citing Cathy's comments and also past donations to such antigay-marriage groups. The company had become branded with an antigay image.
Indeed, the brand has become synonymous with something much more than cross-cut waffle fries. And folks on either side of the gay-marriage debate can't control it; it's become a political tool to be wielded by anyone who wants to, even in the most sinister of ways. The man who pleaded guilty to opening firing at and shooting a security guard at the Family Research Council in 2012 over the group's stance on gay marriage had brought along 15 Chick-fil-A sandwiches, with plans to "kill as many people as I could ... then smear a Chicken-fil-A [sic] sandwich on their face," according to court documents. That's not the kind of press a company, or social movement, wants. Ever.
Despite efforts by the company to extract itself from the gay-marriage debate, its signature chicken is still embraced on the right to prove social-conservative chops. On most Tuesdays on Capitol Hill, you can treat yourself to the free Chick-fil-A offered at the "Conversations with Conservatives" panel, which features members of Congress.
No matter for Cathy, who is attempting to stay the course. He was asked by AJC to comment on proposed legislation in several states, akin to the now-vetoed Arizona bill that would have let businesses deny service to gay and lesbian customers due to those business owners' religious beliefs.
Cathy didn't bite. "I think that's a political debate that's going to rage on," he said. "And the wiser thing for us to do is to stay focused on customer service."