MSM’s upside-down Chick-fil-A sandwich

YouTube Preview ImageRemember when pickles, buttered buns and fried chicken filets were all we could talk about over the summer?

I’m referring, of course, to the big brouhaha over Chick-fil-A (catch up here, here, here, here and here if you happened to be stranded on a deserted island during that time).

Now comes an update from USA Today.

The headline:

Chick-fil-A thrives because of support for families

The top of the story:

Chick-fil-A has something not all that surprising to crow about.

Consumer use, visits and ad awareness were all up measurably in the third quarter, at a time the chicken chain enjoyed a remarkable outpouring of support from consumers, reports research specialist Sandelman & Associates.

Intense national media and social media attention — much of it positive — was heaped on the chain three months ago, after President Dan Cathy told a religious publication that his company was “guilty as charged” in supporting the biblical definition of the family unit.

Supporters of the Atlanta-based chicken chain caused long lines and traffic jams across the country as they rallied for Chick-fil-A. At the same time, a few gay rights groups called for boycotts, but company executives reiterated their long-standing love and appreciation for all customers — even those who disagree with Cathy’s position.

Oops! I am messing with you. That is not actually how USA Today reported the story.

Here is the actual headline:

Chick-fil-A thrives despite gay rights issue

And the actual lede:

Chick-fil-A has something unexpected to crow about.

Consumer use, visits and ad awareness were all up measurably in the third quarter, at a time the chicken chain appeared to be taking a public relations drubbing, reports research specialist Sandelman & Associates.

Intense national media and social media attention — much of it negative — was heaped on the chain three months ago, after President Dan Cathy told a religious publication that his company was “guilty as charged” in supporting the biblical definition of the family unit.

Many gay rights groups called for boycotts, and company executives seemed to be put on the defensive. At the same time, supporters of the Atlanta-based chicken chain held rallies outside stores. The national media couldn’t get enough of it.

Hmmmm, not much subtlety in the worldview of the reporter cranking out that version of the story, huh?

A few journalistic questions: Who is the source on Chick-fil-A’s success being “unexpected?” At the closest Chick-fil-A to my office (and yes, I live in the Bible Belt), the drive-thru is a madhouse every day. Folks in orange vests direct traffic in the parking lot, and runners zip back and forth between the long line and the window swiping credit cards and delivering bags full of delectable chicken sandwiches.

Concerning “public relations drubbing,” again, who is the source (besides the bias of the writer and his editor)?

About the “negative” social media attention, any statistics available on how many folks tweeted and Facebooked positive posts about Chick-fil-A vs. negative messages? Or is this a simple case of a MSM bubble?

Later in the story, there’s this:

Chick-fil-A declined comment.

Last month, the chain seemed to soften its tone. “Our intent is not to support political or social agendas,” Steve Robinson, executive vice president for marketing for Chick-fil-A, said in a statement. Chick-fil-A’s culture, he said, “is to treat every person with honor, dignity and respect — regardless of their belief, race, creed, sexual orientation or gender.”

That softened tone sounds familiar. It’s almost as if the company said basically the same thing more than a year and a half ago before this latest controversy started. From a January 2011 statement by Cathy:

In recent weeks, we have been accused of being anti-gay. We have no agenda against anyone. At the heart and soul of our company, we are a family business that serves and values all people regardless of their beliefs or opinions. We seek to treat everyone with honor, dignity and respect, and believe in the importance of loving your neighbor as yourself.

We also believe in the need for civility in dialogue with others who may have different beliefs. While my family and I believe in the Biblical definition of marriage, we love and respect anyone who disagrees.

Keep reading, and PR execs quoted by USA Today try to figure out how Chick-fil-A overcame such a dreadful “PR disaster.”

Yeah, I wonder.

Image of Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day via Shutterstock 

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Mike

    You acknowledged yourself that it was hot story that GR wrote about non-stop for weeks. Given your own admission, why is it bias to have suggested that they faced a PR disaster and therefore their earnings being up was a surprise and an interesting story.

    • Bobby Ross Jr.

      Was it a PR disaster or a PR bonanza? That is the journalistic question.

      • Darren Blair

        If anything, the company got a boost out of it by being able to present itself as the victim of a liberal horde that was intent upon silencing any and all opposition. The fact that a store in California got vandalized the morning of the kiss-in (something that even the kiss-in organizers objected to) was just icing on the cake.

        Chik-Fil-A is now seen as a last bastion of Christian mores in an increasingly permissive country, and the gay rights crowd got depicted as the barbarians at the gate.

    • Rachel K

      Honestly, I agree with Mike here (and this is coming from someone whose Chick-Fil-A consumption skyrocketed after Cathy’s remarks). It’s totally fair to say that most of the national media attention was negative, at least from what I saw; most of the positive attention came from alternative media sources that are openly conservative or religious. The major networks and newspapers were having the vapors over Chick-Fil-A–and clearly a lot of people refused to swallow it. It may have ended up as a bonanza for CFA, but that doesn’t change the fact that the coverage was overwhelmingly negative. (Of course, that means that the real story here is about media bias, or the general public’s distrust of the media, or the triumph of new media or niche media sources over the major networks and papers, but we can hardly expect USA Today to admit any of that . . .)

  • http://www.authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

    I think you mean “delectable” and not “deletable”….

    • Bobby Ross Jr.

      Thanks. I even looked up the spelling on that one and apparently still couldn’t type it write (kidding).

  • The Old Bill

    “It was a PR disaster and a clear case of what not to do in a crisis.”

    But other PR execs say it confirms their suspicions that not all brands must appeal to everyone. ”
    You mean “edgy” campaigns like Abercrombie’s of a few years ago that appealed to everyone? PR execs are surprised that it’s not a PR disaster when Dan Cathy expresses a view that most Americans hold? Hmmm… there’s a story there.

  • http://www.authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

    One could say that it was a PR threat, or a PR challenge, or a PR test… but whether it was a PR disaster or bonanza is in how they handled it and what the results were. In that case, it definitely was not a disaster.

    Also, at the end of the article, what nut-job PR person merely has “suspicions” that “not all brands must appeal to everyone”? What brand DOES appeal to everyone? Coke? Pepsi? Ford? Toyota? Apple? Dell? iPhone? Android? Seriously, I challenge anyone to name a brand with universal appeal. It is the whole purpose of PR, by the way, to address the fact that the appeal is not universal, and manage the forces that affect the level of appeal!

  • Chris Bolinger

    “Oops! I am messing with you.”

    Love it.

    • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

      Yeah, Bobby, you were messing with me. When I started reading your post after having already read the USA Today piece, I thought, “What story were you reading, man?” Then I saw the “Oops!” You succeeded.

  • Fr Theodore

    “Concerning “public relations drubbing,” again, who is the source (besides the bias of the writer and his editor)?”

    The way the article is written, the implication is that Sandelman and Associates were the source of the “public relations drubbing” comment. However, I’ve yet to see a quote to back that up, either in this article or the equivalent ABC News story.

    http://abcnews.go.com/Business/chick-fil-benefited-summers-gay-marriage-debate/story?id=17562204#.UInqsxwYdZc

    • Bobby Ross Jr.

      Thanks for the ABC link.

  • Kristen inDallas

    I’m just excited that their finally reporting “’guilty as charged’ in supporting the biblical definition of the family unit.” Rather than “guilty as charged” in opposition to gay rights.

    • Bobby Ross Jr.

      Good point.

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  • deacon john m. bresnahan

    There is a great market out there of people who appreciate traditional values but who are rarely appealed to in the market place. There are few Chik-Fil-As here in the Boston area. Yet our large Catholic family appreciated how Chiks are closed on Sundays. So when we traveled we always looked for Chiks to give our business to
    As for Abercrombie and Fitch–most of our casual clothes came from there. But a few years ago they started featuring semi-nude, mostly male. huge photos at the entrance to their stores–even, on a few occasions having semi-nude employees passing out flyers in the Mall. You would think they were promoting a Gay bar.
    So our wardrobe now includes less and less A&F stuff as it wears out.
    Unfortunately, the media rarely covers anything to do with those who are guided by a traditional value or two in their shopping decisions. That is why the media was caught so off-guard on the Chik story. And it is not just Evangelical Protestants who follow this path. Many of us Catholics also do so.

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  • MJBubba

    Deacon J.M. Bresnahan, you say “the media was caught off guard,” but I think that it should be noted that they were on the attack, and did not expect any resistance. They thought Chick-fil-A could be steamrolled the way the Komen Foundation was steamrolled earlier this year. They underestimated the high level of good will that Chick-fil-A has and overestimated how much influence they still have. Also, that comment could be interpreted to indicate that you are thinking of the lefty mass media as conspirators, but I know that you agree with me that it is simply a matter of groupthink.


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