The Chick-fil-A public relations crisis is about more than just the LGBT community's vocal response to company President and COO Dan Cathy's anti-gay remarks. I am under no illusion that my opinions about Mr. Cathy (no matter how many comments or Facebook likes they garner) will make him change his views. Like a towering oak tree, those views are rooted deeply in religion and nothing short of a flood of Biblical proportions will dislodge them.
But what I do expect is that Mr. Cathy will put the good of his employees first. Thousands of people count on Mr. Cathy's leadership to feed their families (on more than chicken biscuits). So let me emphasize again: Separate the views from the vision. The brand is bigger than the boss -- and it's not too late to fix this problem.
As a 20-year PR and crisis communications veteran, I've come up with a five-step plan for Chick-fil-A to overcome this nightmare and get back to business.
1.) Dan Cathy should issue a genuine formal apology to members of the gay community. Anyone who has come close to losing a long-term relationship (either between customers or loved ones) knows that forgiveness begins with an apology. The apology needs to come from Mr. Cathy, not the Chick-fil-A PR department. He should say that his religious beliefs run deep -- yet his love for his company and customers runs deeper and that he in no way wants to exclude or offend anyone or harm the company he and his family have worked so hard to build.
2.) Chick-fil-A should change its corporate giving policy immediately. Going forward no "anti" anything groups (as in anti-gay marriage) should receive funds from the company. Not one cent. Not one chicken biscuit.
3.) The company should develop and launch programs such as "All Welcome Wednesdays." From 5-8 p.m. every Wednesday, families of all walks of life would be welcome to come enjoy discounted or free food and get to know each other better. Chick-fil-A tray liners could offer tips for acceptance and against bullying.
4.) Mr. Cathy and senior executives should host a meeting with members of the gay community as soon as possible and discuss ways we can all do a better job communicating and accepting each other. I would be happy to facilitate and moderate that discussion.
5.) Finally, if Mr. Cathy really wants to set things straight (so to speak), I would advise Chick-fil-A to match the funds it donated to the offending groups (which is estimated at more than $5 million) by giving a similar donation to the soon to be built National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta. It would be a much needed boost in fundraising for the center and a lasting legacy for the Cathy family in its hometown. It would send a very powerful message that Chick-fil-A cares and believes in equal rights for everyone. Straight, gay or otherwise.
Mr. Cathy, you can take or leave my advice. You are known as a man of principal with strong religious views and I respect you for that. I hope you will begin to embrace everyone with that same charisma and passion, instead of being "anti" anything.
Forgiveness is only five steps away.
Mark Pettit is president & CEO of Creaxion, one of the nation's leading marketing firms. Mr. Pettit has more than 20 years of marketing experience and is an expert in crisis communications. A former TV newscaster and published author, he also serves on the board of the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau. Follow Mark on Twitter @PettitMark and online at www.Creaxion.com.