What Happens When CEOs Take a Controversial Stand?

Emily Post, the early 20th century maven of manners, decided a long time ago that it was poor form to discuss religion or politics in most social situations.

Some CEOs think the rule doesn’t extend to the business world, but they find out otherwise when their decision to take a controversial stand causes a negative impact on their companies. Sure, on principle, you have to admire someone who stands up for his or her beliefs. On the other hand, you can’t ignore the fallout that often brings.

Just ask Chick-fil-a President Dan Cathy, whose public condemnation of gay marriage last summer caused a national boycott of his chain. To be fair, Cathy’s stand also brought (arguably larger) national efforts by gay marriage opponents to support Chick-fil-a. Still, a whole lot of people were talking about the controversy, not delicious chicken.

Starbucks Statement Has Some Up in Arms

Recently, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz stirred a hornet’s nest by deciding not to ban firearms while also also discouraging licensed handgun carriers from going to his stores. Those comments came after gun rights enthusiasts started using Starbucks for meet-ups they called “Starbucks Appreciation Days.”

In his open letter addressing the stance, Schultz worked hard to strike a balance and said the coffee chain had been unfairly touted as champions of open-carry laws. This, he said, created unwanted tension with advocacy groups like Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, which has organized Saturday boycotts.

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Schultz stressed that he doesn’t want Starbucks stores used by gun-rights meetups.

“To be clear: We do not want these events in our stores,” he said, explaining that gun-rights issues are for lawmakers to decide, ultimately.

Just because the company has worked to walk back its stance, however, does not mean the controversy will go away. What you usually see – and this was the case with both Chick-fil-a and Starbucks – is that a company becomes little more than a flashpoint and a rallying cry for both sides of a debate.

Most companies would rather get attention for their great products and services, right?

How to Appropriately Handle Controversy

Sometimes, becoming embroiled in hot public discourse is unavoidable. That’s what happened to Starbucks. It became part of the story and had little choice but to say something. All you can do then is use your best judgment and brace for the tsunami.

It’s a good idea for any business to have a plan in place if a comment gets misinterpreted or if a company’s stance on an issue causes a commotion.

Having a public relations firm ready to handle crisis management is a good idea, but every business should have someone trained in this area as a backup. Here are a few basic guidelines to follow if you find your business in hot water:

  • Don’t make a statement without knowing all of the facts.
  • Speak with reason, not emotion.
  • Keep your temper.
  • Don’t be overly defensive.
  • Always take the high ground, and don’t resort to smear tactics.

One comment can change a company’s reputation in a matter of minutes, but with the correct preparation, your company can emerge stronger from any controversy.

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