As Paula Deen remains at the center of a media/social media frenzy, digging herself a bigger hole each time she tries to explain her racist remarks (and driving more of her corporate partners to jettison her while at the same time spurring sales of her cookbooks) another icon of Southern cooking stepped back into the spotlight with his own ignoble commentary. Dan Cathy, head of Chick-fil-A and already infamous for his previous gay bashing, took to Twitter after the Supreme Court’s DOMA and California Prop 8 ruling this week to put his own personal spin on the decision.
His tweet – “Sad day for our nation; founding fathers would be ashamed of our gen. to abandon wisdom of the ages re: cornerstone of strong societies” – quickly made the rounds in media/social media outlets and was then quickly removed, most likely at the behest of Chick-fil-A’s beleaguered marketing or communications folks. Company spokespeople responded to inquiries by stating that the views of Mr. Cathy were his own and Chick-fil-A was “focused on providing great-tasting food and genuine hospitality to everyone.” Not bad, but the damage had already been done. Ironically, Mr. Cathy’s subsequent tweets announced that he was in New York City, scouting locations for potential restaurant locations. One can only wonder how his most recent remarks will impact approvals for new Chick-fil-A sites, knowing that cities such as San Francisco and Boston have banned the Company for Mr. Cathy’s previous diatribes against gay marriage.
From a communications perspective, Mr. Cathy’s Twitter exploits again raises the issue of the use of social media by corporations and their executives, a topic we have discussed in a number of previous posts. The fact is that from the C-Suite to the restaurant counter or shop floor, employees of a company are not separate from the brand when it comes to social media. That is why it is critical that all organizations have a social media policy that is not only disseminated to all employees but explained and understood.
Now I do not know if Chick-fil-A has a social media policy, what it says and if folks are trained on it, but allowing an executive, as controversial as Mr. Cathy and with a prior record of comments that are impolitic at best or just plain hateful to use Twitter was (First Amendment and free speech aside) an accident waiting to happen. That Chick-fil-A’s communications/marketing teams, much less general counsel or Board, approved or allowed Mr. Cathy to use Twitter is just plain stunning and could even be considered communications malpractice.
Our job as PR professionals is to build, promote and protect brands and social media is a significant tool in doing our work. But we must also look at how we use social media and who uses it because in a hyper-connected world you can be just a tweet, You Tube clip or Facebook post away from a crisis and reputational hit. While Mr. Cathy’s tweet tale did provide a few moments’ diversion from the appalling Paula Deen saga, it also offers a lesson on social media for companies, executives and communicators.