Chick-fil-A CEO comments put corporate gay marriage support in spotlight

Despite Chick-fil-A's opposition to gay marriage, executives are largely deciding that support for gay rights is not only a matter of principle but also important to their business goals.

Despite comments from the CEO of Chick-fil-A opposing gay marriage, corporate executives are largely deciding that support for gay rights is not only a matter of principle but also important to their business goals.

A number of Fortune 500 businesses are both publicly and privately reaffirming their support for the rights of gay couples to marry. Companies such as Apple, Nike, Microsoft, and General Mills are throwing their political clout and marketing support behind same-sex marriage rights.

Jennifer Cunningham, partner at puadsblic affairs firm SKDKnickerbocker, says “gay marriage has become the civil rights issue of our generation.”

“It's become increasingly clear that we're moving toward recognizing it is appropriate for same-sex couples to have the freedom to marry,” she says.  “Companies no longer view this as a ‘let's avoid-this-at-all-costs' hot-button issue.”

While same-sex marriage is seeing rising public acceptance and endorsement from political leaders such as President Barack Obama to celebrities such as 50 Cent, not all corporate leaders agree. In an interview with the Baptist Press, Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy replied “guilty as charged” when asked if his restaurant chain supports only families led by a man and woman.

His comments were criticized by celebrities, politicians, and business partners, as well as gay rights groups. The Jim Henson Co., a supplier of kids-meals toys, severed ties with Chick-fil-A. In a strongly worded letter, Boston Mayor Tom Menino urged Cathy to reconsider the chain's plans for a Boston location. “We are indeed full of pride for our support of same-sex marriage,” Menino wrote in a letter that received more than 139,000 “likes” on Facebook.

Ben Boyd, global chair of the corporate practice at Edelman, says leaders in the C-suite can voice their opinions about marriage so long as they make a very clear distinction between their personal beliefs and the perceived policies of their organization.

“The outcry about Chick-fil-A is not for a reversal of [Cathy's] belief structure, but what the public wants is for the enterprise to respect the consumer constituency writ large,” he says. “That doesn't mean a company can't contribute to a particular political candidate or organization [that supports traditional family values], but when managing a public company, it is incumbent upon leaders to realize the world is a fundamentally different place.”

“What Cathy put into the public space wasn't a question of his opinion, but became a matter of disrespect in the words he chose,” Boyd adds.

Ashley McCown, president of Boston-based strategic marketing firm Solomon McCown & Company, disagrees. She says comments like those of Cathy, no matter how they are phrased, seem discriminatory.

“CEOs are so closely associated with their companies that it is all part of the same brand,” she says. “In this day and age, there is no room for CEOs to hedge on this issue. They have to be crystal clear about the fact that they embrace every kind of family and every kind of couple.”

Chick-fil-A later released a statement to the media and on its Facebook page essentially backtracking on the issue.

“Going forward, our intent is to leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena,” the statement reads. It adds that Chick-fil-A will continue “to treat every person with honor, dignity and respect – regardless of their belief, race, creed, sexual orientation, or gender.”

However, Boyd says the damage to Chick-fil-A's brand is two-fold – first, from Cathy's initial comments and then from retreating on the issue.

“By making what Cathy might have assumed to be an innocuous private comment to an outlet and a group of consumers that would have supported his point of view, has he now moved the enterprise in the opposite direction?” he explains.

Other major companies are moving the debate in the opposite direction. On Friday, Amazon.com founder and CEO Jeff Bezos and his wife said they would give $2.5 million to the campaign to defend Washington State's gay marriage law. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and co-founder Bill Gates donated six-figure sums to the same cause last month.

At Kraft Foods, Basil Maglaris, associate director of corporate affairs, says the issue of gay rights isn't just about principle. “It's also essential to our business success,” Maglaris says in an email to PRWeek.

The company established the Kraft Foods Rainbow Council to foster a positive employee culture and raise awareness of LGBT issues and opportunities. The company also celebrates diversity in its marcomms efforts for its different brands. It posted an Oreo ad during Pride Week, for instance, depicting a rainbow flag of layers between two cookies on its social media sites.

“There has been a lot of buzz about the Pride image, and the positive comments have far outnumbered any negative comments,” says Maglaris.

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