The recent brouhaha over Sam Adams, Guinness, and Heineken beer pulling their sponsorships from the St. Patrick's Day parades in New York and Boston (and the Catholic League, in turn, urging faithful Roman Catholics to boycott the three brands), reminded me of one of the darker, if also most instructive, moments in my public relations career.

Two years ago, I wrote a blog post entitled "Intolerance Claims Another Victim." The post focused on Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy's remarks opposing same-sex marriage.

My argument, then as now, is that religion and politics have no place in business. I’m a practicing member of the Church of Live and Let Live. I also believe it’s downright foolish for any entrepreneur to purposely alienate a significant percentage of existing and prospective customers simply because he does, or does not, believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible.

You're Fired!

A few hours after I’d published my Chick-fil-A blog post, one of our clients emailed my cofounder (even though I had a longstanding personal relationship with the guy). In his note, the client said he felt it was inappropriate for his law firm to associate with any public relations agency that made controversial statements. He ended our relationship on the spot.

I was nonplussed by the experience. But I was equally heartened by the way my fellow employees supported me. They not only said they agreed with my point of view, those closest to the account said the client organization had been experiencing cash flow issues and was merely looking for an excuse to end things with us.

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Also on a positive note, almost immediately after my blog was published and my firm fired, Inc. asked if I’d be willing to write a column about the Chick-fil-A crisis. Believing more than ever that I had been right about the subject, I penned "5 PR Lessons from the Chick-fil-A Crisis." The column was later republished on The Wall Street Journal's website.

Cody's War

The Chick-fil-A flap wasn’t the first time a blog post I'd written had caused a major stir. In 2007, I spotted a notice in O'Dwyer's, a PR industry trade journal. The article announced that a smallish PR firm had just launched an effort to raise money for the families of journalists who had been slain covering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

On my blog, I saluted the firm for doing so, but made two other observations:

  1. The charitable cause seemed more than a bit self-serving, since PR firms are constantly trying to curry favor with the media. Starting a charity such as this, I wrote, was akin to the motorist who pastes a Policeman’s Benevolent Association sticker on his car’s rear window hoping it will dissuade a state trooper from issuing a ticket.
  2. Since the media tend to see PR as a necessary evil at best, I also suggested that, were the roles reversed, we would not be reading about a group of journalists who had just created a fund to raise money for the families of PR executives killed while working in war zones.

Well, Virginia, the proverbial shit hit the fan.

First, O'Dwyer's ran my blog on the two successive covers of its weekly newsletter, each time demanding that I apologize immediately for my unpatriotic acts. Then my clients started emailing to tell me the other PR firm was urging them to fire Peppercomm for taking a pro-Al Qaeda stance! 

As you can guess, both actions got my immediate attention. I issued a clarifying statement on my blog, and O'Dwyer's moved on to other, more legitimate news stories. I also called the owner of the other PR firm, told him I’d never intended to harm his business, and asked him to lay off my clients. That crisis also dissipated.

Lessons Learned

The Chick-fil-A and O'Dwyer's imbroglios had two immediate, critical consequences:

  1. I’ve instituted an internal review board that checks all of my social media copy before it sees the light of day. Every entrepreneur needs an editor. Those of us who posit strong points of view really need a second, and even third, pair of eyes to check content as well as grammar.
  2. I’ve become an immeasurably better counselor to my clients. Having personally experienced two very intense crises that impacted my personal and professional reputation, as well as that of my firm, I’m now extraordinarily well-equipped to think through possible scenarios before any client hits the send button to communicate their point of view on a potentially controversial topic.

As the old saying goes, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I’d say it also makes you smarter. My two tales from the dark side have shone a light on the need to always put myself in the audience’s shoes first and to carefully read my words from their point of view. I’m pleased to report that the outside-in perspective has prevented any further descents into the fiery abyss.