My NBC Nightly News Interview: Social Media and Controversial CEOs

I received a call on Friday from NBC Nightly News producer Doug Stoddart to get my opinion on the social media fueled Chick-fil-A controversy. He wanted to know if I thought that CEOs should “think twice before sharing their opinions on controversial subjects because of the social media fallout.” I thought about this for a moment. Knowing how quickly news spreads now because of social media, is it worth the risk to possibly ruin your future business opportunities by speaking publically about controversial subjects?

Social Media Awareness

At first I was hesitant to share my opinion. These days, as a business owner, you really have to be careful what you say to the media, case in point. Then I had an epiphany. Dan Cathy is one of the first CEOs to embrace social media. Surely he was aware how his statements would spread quickly on the Internet. Was it perhaps a premeditated move on his part? I mean, if I sat there and thought twice about speaking my opinion on national television with a very small business at stake, I’m sure he knew the consequences on a much larger scale.

Well, Dan doesn’t really have that much to lose. Let’s face it, Chick-fil-A is a $4 billion business. They are one of the most successful fast-food companies in the United States. They are a privately owned company which has been very open about their conservative views from the outset. They are never open on Sundays and they have been giving their money to family and Christian oriented charities for many, many years. This has never been a secret. I don’t believe Dan is worried he will lose much business even if Mayors from major cities such as Chicago, San Francisco and Boston claim they will try to block his restaurants from opening.

Another thing is the general public has a short attention span. I doubt very seriously this will be something people remember in a month or two once the next controversy comes up to take it’s place. After all is said and done, they will continue to provide a good product with service most other fast-food chains can learn from. This is something sorely lacking among most of their competition.

Make the Decision and Be Ready

The most important aspect of this controversy was that Chik-Fil-A was ready to deal with the social media fallout. They answered posts in a timely manner. They didn’t delete hater’s posts, they simply ignored them or came back and stayed with the facts, never veering into opinion. At one point Dan Cathy posted this on his Facebook page, “I’m keeping the main thing, the main thing. Chick-fil-A is about great food, great service and genuine hospitality for all.” He didn’t go into it any further.

My opinion is Dan was well aware his comments could cause an uproar and wasn’t going to let that stop him from sharing his opinion. He stuck to his beliefs and was prepared to face the wave of critics and supporters alike on his social media channels. That was his choice. However, he left his front line of retail workers to face the worst of it. I feel sorry for the workers who have been harrassed and belittled in the wake of the media storm, especially the teens who might not be as well equipped to handle the backlash. I’m not quite sure he thought that through and might have made a different decision if he had.

Freedom to Post

I ended up giving interview after all and shared many of the same views I shared here. My point was social media is the gasoline that spreads opinions rapidly throughout the community and far beyond, especially if you’re the CEO of a large corporation. Smart CEOs will understand this and will take advantage of the opportunity if they wish. However, they must be prepared to deal with the fallout, both good and bad, if they choose to voice their opinions on controversial topics. These are the new business rules, like it or not. If a business owner feels they want to share controversial opinions with the public, that’s their choice. The beauty is we live in a country that gives us the freedom of making that choice.

Update: Interestingly enough, the interview didn’t air because there weren’t enough protests from the LGBT community to warrant it. I asked a family member, who is a member of this group, his opinion on this and he told me it just wasn’t that big a deal to most people in the community. He would actually still eat there because of the great service and above average chicken sandwich. “There are far more important issues to worry about than this one.” he said. I agree.