Memo to CEOs: Don't publicly express your views on marriage or homosexuality or any other social issue. Instead of using the opportunity to foster a meaningful discussion, consumers may take your opinions personally and retaliate against you and your brand.
Late last month, Guido Barilla, president of Italy-based pasta brand Barilla, sparked boycotts by various groups for saying that he wouldn't feature same-sex couples in his company's commercials, not out of disrespect, but because he does not define gay couples as a "classic family." Last year Chick-fil-A president and chief operating officer Dan Cathy expressed disapproval of gay marriage stating, "[w]e are very much supportive of the family -- the biblical definition of the family unit." Outraged consumers and even government officials called for banning the restaurant.
To be clear, I have always supported marriage equality, but a food company or its executives' positions on these issues should have zero bearing on whether I will eat their chicken or pasta. They shouldn't precisely because I shouldn't be made aware of them. Indeed, while I'm not, what if the statements of Barilla and Cathy offend me and others such that we no longer buy a certain product? It's not worth it, though in my individual case it doesn't matter to me what people say or believe.
I enjoy Mel Gibson's films even though he has engaged in several seemingly anti-Semitic tirades. I still eat my mother's chicken and pasta even though I disagree with her on various social issues.
Companies and their executives are consistently punished by the public for expressing their views on issues completely unrelated to their business. Because they are it's necessary for company executives to use more discretion to avoid these controversies.
After public backlash, Chick-fil-A moderated its stance on the marriage issue; claiming that they never intended to support a political or social agenda. Notable there is that the criticism was so harsh that even the American Civil Liberties Union defended Chick-fil-A's right to expression, while of course not condoning Cathy's view. Also bowing to public pressure, Barilla backtracked and apologized; claiming his comments were "not a genuine view" of his opinion.
Given the history of consumer backlash, company leaders need to recognize that despite having free speech rights to express controversial social views, their ultimate constituencies are their shareholders and customers. They should always act in the best interest of their company even if that means restraining expression of personal opinion.
Federman is an executive at 1Sale.com. His work has been featured on ABC News, CNN Money, Yahoo News and elsewhere. The opinions expressed here are solely his own.
Original article was published in Forbes.