Chick-Fil-A’s Epic Social Media Fail (or: A Quick Lesson in Reputation Management)

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Chick-Fil-A has taken a lot of heat recently following its president’s remarks regarding marriage equality.  President Dan Cathy described himself as “guilty as charged” when it comes to supporting “the biblical definition of the family unit.”  Politicians, religious leaders, and pro-gay marriage advocates condemned Mr. Cathy’s remarks as bigoted and unwelcome.  The Jim Henson Company quickly elected to remove their toys from Chick-Fil-A locations as a way to demonstrate their disgust with the president’s position on the issue.

Rather than deal with the Henson Company’s decision in an open manner, Chick-Fil-A released a ham-handed statement that “there were reports of children getting their fingers stuck in the holes of the puppets.”  It was a hack move on their part and did little else than foment distrust for the company.  In an effort to stem the bad press Chick-Fil-A turned to Facebook as a potential means of repairing their reputation.  

Using a stock photo image, Chick-Fil-A invented a Facebook user.  They named her “Abby Farle” (see picture and posts above).  “Abby” began to participate in Facebook discussions regarding the Henson Company debacle.  She attempted to correct facts and dates.  She posted bible verse (John 3:16).  She tried to correct the vocal critics.  Until they wised up and did a little fact checking.

The sham was exposed.  “Abby’s” Facebook account was only 8 hours old.  Her picture was quickly determined to be a Shutterstock image.  Her posts were clearly those of a PR zombie that had been given marching orders to use social media in order to help salvage the company’s reputation among networked consumers.  And it failed.  And then it went viral.  Twitter powerhouses Gizmodo and Mashable had a hey-day mocking Chick-Fil-A’s brainless attempt to manage its reputation.  On-line readers had a good laugh at “Abby” and her robot charm.  Not only did Chick-Fil-A take a severe blow in the press, but they also became the Uber Epic Social Fail of the Moronic Moment among connected consumers and digerati.  

A business leader is entitled to his opinion on moral, ethical, and policy issues.  Should they be shared with the world?  Arguably not.  But once the opinion is “out there” a business has a simple choice to make: Take the heat and stand behind the opinion OR apologize to the customer, community, constituents, and shareholders and move on.  Attempting to dupe consumers using social media, falsifying identities, and disingenuous PR nonsense, however, only creates another layer of distrust between the consumer and the organization while further harming the company’s integrity.  The on-line community is smart and it moves information through networks at wicked speeds.  Fact checking and bullshit detecting occur in the immediacy of a conversation and can be merciless.

Like it or not any business is a social business.  We have better mechanisms to capture and accelerate the social nature of the business than we’ve ever had before.  In an age of such tremendous transparency this type of acceleration can either legitimize a company’s reputation or discredit the business as furtive, slimy, and out of touch with a modern consumer.  You can’t hate on the Muppets and you can’t lie to your audience.  Stings a little, doesn’t it Mr. Cathy?

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