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Chick-fil-A: Stop Trying to Control the Conversation

By Christopher J. Bucholtz CRM Buyer ECT News Network
Aug 9, 2012 5:00 AM PT

When people are under stress, many respond with remarkable grace, courage and decisiveness. Then there are those who, under great stress, become paralyzed, flail about, or lash out in unproductive and unprovoked ways.

Chick-fil-A: Stop Trying to Control the Conversation

The social era is showing us that while corporations are not people, they are run by people. And choosing wisely when elevating people to leadership positions is critical. It can make the difference between whether the business reacts with great grace or with panic when faced with a crisis.

Take the Chick-fil-A kerfluffle of this summer. I have an opinion on the root issues of it, but that's not the point of this column. The point here is that Chick-fil-A did something that virtually all people can agree was dumb and damaging to customer relationships.

Don't Be Shifty

I'm not even talking about the phony Facebook account, for which the company has denied responsibility -- although it does demonstrate how easily a crisis can spin out of control. (Note to other companies: Don't create fictional people to argue for you -- and look out for potentially fictional people on your Facebook account in crisis situations.)

I'm talking about something that occurred before phony Facebooker "Abby Farle" materialized on Chick-fil-A's fan page -- although it's connected to her bogus comments.

When CEO Dan Cathy's remarks about gay marriage were publicized, the Jim Henson Company severed ties with the restaurant. Muppet toys were being given away in children's meals; the Jim Henson Company released a statement that said, in part, "the Jim Henson Company has celebrated and embraced diversity and inclusiveness for over fifty years and we have notified Chick-fil-A that we do not wish to partner with them on any future endeavors."

Fair enough -- with the storm clouds gathering, the Henson folks wanted to get out of the line of fire. Moreover, they felt they needed to cut ties to adhere to their own ethical standard. And they were transparent about their motivations and actions.

Shortly thereafter, Chick-fil-A posted signs in at least two stores saying the toys had been removed from meals the day before the Muppets bailed out, citing "safety concerns." That explanation was then verified by the company as the reason the toys were being removed from the meals. It had nothing to do with the decision of the Henson organization to walk away from their partnership -- nothing at all.

Don't Tangle With Muppets

I'm trying to take all of this at face value and give people the benefit of the doubt. But here it is: If you pick a fight with the Muppets, you're going to lose. And if you make it look like you're being deceitful, spiteful, or less than truthful, don't be shocked when people assume a fake Facebooker is yet another attempt to control and shape the conversation.

This goes to the concept of being authentic -- a key part of what it means to build relationships in the social CRM era. People want to do business with people they like, and most people have misgivings about businesses when there's a pile-up of controversial and potentially dishonest anecdotes about them.

One is an anecdote, two is a coincidence, and three is a trend -- and by the time you get to three, customers are disinclined to do business with you.

Chick-fil-A can assume any stance it wishes on any issue, but when it comes to communicating with customers, the only valid and effective stance in the social era is honesty. If you're proud of your stance, stick with it and be forthcoming about it -- don't obfuscate, don't create your own version of the truth, and for heaven's sake, don't impersonate a teenage girl on Facebook (not sayin' they did -- just saying it's a horrible idea).

It may sound glib, but it's true: If you're not transparent in social media, customers are going to see right through you.

CRM Buyer columnist Chris Bucholtz blogs about CRM at the CRM Outsiders. He has been a technology journalist for 17 years and has immersed himself in the world of CRM since 2006. When he's not wearing his business and technology geek hat, he's wearing his airplane geek hat; he's written three books on World War II aviation.

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