Companies thread line on religion, brand reputation

According to corporate reputation experts, sharing personal beliefs can help humanize a company, but those communications should not interfere with the interests of the brand or stakeholders.

NFL quarterback Tim Tebow became famous for his post-touchdown posture of kneeling in prayer, even inspiring a new verb - "Tebowing."

While such overt expressions of faith by athletes are generally accepted, a CEO who Tebowed might provoke a different reaction. Is it ever appropriate for companies and their leaders to communicate religious beliefs?

Yes, say PR executives - but up to a certain point. According to corporate reputation experts, sharing personal beliefs can help humanize a company, but those communications should not interfere with the interests of the brand or stakeholders.

"There's a place for religious causes," says Rich Tauberman, EVP at MWW Group. "But how you use them in a corporate setting has to be looked at from the scope of its potential impact on customers, investors, and employees."

Keeping the faith

Tyson Foods says in the core values section of its website it will “strive to be a faith-friendly company” and to “honor God and be respectful of each other, our customers, and other stakeholders.”

The company has a chaplaincy program offer ministry and pastoral care to staff.

Spokesperson Gary Mickelson said in a statement: “We're proud of our efforts to be faith-friendly and believe it contributes to a more positive and productive working environment.”

Clothing retailer Forever 21 prints the bible verse John 3:16 on the bottom of its shopping bags. Spokeswoman Kristen Strickler says the verse is “an expression of the owners' faith.”

The mission statement of Interstate Batteries reads, “To glorify God as we supply our customers worldwide with top quality, value-priced batteries.”

Burger chain In-N-Out prints Bible passages on its wrappers and cups, but does not mention religion in other company communications or its website.

Different approaches
Ben Boyd, global chair of the corporate practice at Edelman, once counseled a company whose CEO held a weekly bible study in his office. Company employees were aware of the meetings. Some were invited to attend, but the CEO's religious activity did not negatively affect corporate reputation, Boyd says.

"No one was coerced. Had it turned into a blast email on a weekly basis, we might have had an issue to manage," he explains.

Conversely, a religious statement from Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy in July triggered public backlash. Cathy told the Baptist Press his company supports "the biblical definition" of families - those led by a man and a woman. Gay marriage groups, politicians, celebrities, and business partners criticized Cathy, with some calling for a boycott of the company.

"I wouldn't have advised [Cathy] not to do the interview, but I would have counseled him on the tone and tenor of what he said," Boyd explains."It's not the fact that the belief was present, but the belief became more prominent than the company's mission to make chicken."

Cathy also did not take into account the volatile media environment in which he spoke, PR leaders say.

However, sharing personal beliefs can boost a company's reputation in the context of executives discussing ethical values, says Marjorie Benzkofer, SVP and co-chair of the corporate reputation practice at Fleishman-Hillard.

"Consumers want to see CEOs acting and talking about ethics issues," she notes. "We want to see CEOs behaving with integrity and transparency."

Hidden message
Ethical behavior is central to the religious message of Christian Brothers Automotive, a Houston-based automotive repair company with 106 franchises in 12 states led by CEO Mark Carr, who founded the company with a technician from his church after praying to God for a business opportunity.

Christian Brothers' mission, found on its website, is "Love your neighbor as yourself." But, mention of the company's faith is absent from stores, marketing materials, and human resources documents. As a result, many customers aren't aware of the company's religious foundation, says Josh Wall, VP of development at Christian Brothers.

"We don't want to pressure anyone into thinking they have to do something," he says. Twice a week at headquarters, leaders hold an optional prayer gathering, but other than the prayer meetings and name, the only visible mark of religion at the firm are the bibles that sit in every store lobby, along with copies of magazines such as Time

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