Chick-Fil-A Fast Losing Ground in Marriage Debate

Expert: Public Opinion 'Drastically Shifting' Against Its Position

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Though Chick-Fil-A top exec Dan Cathy may not have anticipated it when he said "guilty as charged" in a recent interview, those three politically charged words in response to the company's stance on family values have launched a wave of angry backlash against a chain long known for its Christian values.

Now not only is the chain facing a PR crisis, but it's found itself at the epicenter of an issue that 's fast losing a growing number of constituencies.

Dan Cathy
Dan Cathy

To recap, the latest -- and arguably largest, thus far -- backlash against the chicken chain started last week when an interview that Mr. Cathy, the company's president, did with the Baptist Press hit the web. In it, he reiterated the chicken chain's support of what he considers traditional marriage. "Guilty as charged," Mr. Cathy told the magazine. "We are very much supportive of the family -- the biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives."

First to object were marriage-equality activists long outspoken about what they view as a basic civil-rights issue and who are angered that the company funnels millions to anti-gay, pro-traditional marriage organizations like Exodus International and the American Family Association that work actively to prevent gay people from legally marrying their partners.

But in recent days, others have come out against Chick-Fil-A. In short, it's not just the usual suspects anymore. "With regard to this issue, you have to recognize that we're at a point in this issue where public opinion is dramatically shifting from opposition to support" of gay-marriage rights, said Adam Mendelsohn, a crisis-communications expert at public-strategy firm Mercury.

And Chick-Fil-A is running the risk of appearing anti-equal-rights in the minds of those who see this as opposition to gay marriage as a civil-rights problem. "For some people, they see this as the next phase of the civil-rights movement. Five years ago, 10 years ago, popular opinion did not support this issue. You didn't have large groups of people prepared to vocally take this issue on." That's not true anymore, Mr. Mendelsohn said.

Case in point: the Jim Henson Co. On July 20, the company, which had been working with the chain to create products for its kids' meals, announced it would sever its relationship with Chick-Fil-A via a statement on its Facebook page, and would donate the money it had received from Chick-Fil-A to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.

Word then got out that some Chick-Fil-A locations had posted signs that said they were "voluntarily recalling" the Jim Henson kids' toys because of a safety issue, sparking even more ire among those upset with Chick-Fil-A's stance. Chick-Fil-A said in a statement to Ad Age that there was indeed a safety issue with the toys, that the recall was unrelated to the Jim Henson announcement and that it was only coincidence.

And politicians are speaking up, too. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino told the Boston Herald: "Chick-fil-A doesn't belong in Boston. You can't have a business in the city of Boston that discriminates against a population. We're an open city, we're a city that 's at the forefront of inclusion."

And just this week, Chicago alderman Proco "Joe" Moreno said that he will block Chick-Fil-A's attempt to build a location -- the city's second -- in the Logan Square neighborhood. "Because of [Dan Cathy's] ignorance, I will now be denying Chick-fil-A's permit to open a restaurant in the 1st Ward," he said in a proposed opinion piece that was also sent to Chicago Tribune reporters.

Even Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel supported Mr. Moreno's stance. "Chick-Fil-A values are not Chicago values," the mayor said in a statement to the Tribune. "They disrespect our fellow neighbors and residents." Of course, whether a city can actually prevent the chain from coming in on the basis of religion -- after all, Chick-Fil-A is not actively discriminating against customers who walk in the store -- is another issue.

Not that Chick-Fil-A has been left out in the cold alone. Conservative groups and figureheads have come in to stand behind the chain and its values. Former Arkansas Governor and Republican presidential contender Mike Huckabee proposed on Facebook that Aug. 1 be Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day. "The goal is simple: Let's affirm a business that operates on Christian principles and whose executives are willing to take a stand for the godly values we espouse by simply showing up and eating at Chick Fil-A on Wednesday, Aug. 1," said Mr. Huckabee on the event's Facebook page.

"They have a right to state whatever it is they want to state, but it's a big risk," said Hunter PR managing partner Grace Leong. "These are super-controversial statements, and they're igniting the ire of people who don't agree with them."

Chick-Fil-A isn't offering up much more on how it plans to handle the issue, or whether it will continue to donate to pro-traditional marriage groups. Its only said in a statement from last week in response to the backlash that it intends to stay out of the policy debate moving forward, but marriage equalty supporters are doubftul Chick-Fil-A will stay out of politics unless it stops giving to pro-traditional-marriage groups, which they see as integral to the policy debate.

The PR challenge the company faces now, which is different from the ire it tends to incite when it makes these kinds of statements about its beliefs -- the company is no stranger to backlash -- is more high-profile with city governments on the attack. The company has already alienated a group of consumers, but rather than stand firm and continue to defend its position, it has gone mute. "A bit of a misfire was the press release saying, 'We're taking ourselves out of the conversation,'" said Ms. Leong. "Taking yourself out of the conversation is a weak follow-up. If you say 'This is our position,' say it boldly and stand behind it."

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Contributing: Alexandra Bruell

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