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Author: Charlie Maclean Bristol, Training Director, FBCI, FEPS

As the conduct trial looms for Australian rugby player Israel Folau, Charlie discusses how crisis management teams must think through the complexities of similar incidents before acting, commenting or responding.

As a rugby fan, the news article which caught my eye this week was the ongoing story of Australian Wallabies' player Israel Folau, who is due to go in front of Rugby Australia for a code of conduct hearing on Saturday. The hearing will determine whether Folau breached Rugby Australia’s code of conduct by posting anti-gay comments on social media, or whether he exercised his right of religious freedom. His contract was terminated by Rugby Australia and Folau sought the code of conduct hearing to challenge the termination. This is following similar anti-gay, religiously inspired comments last April where he was then asked by Rugby Australia not to make any further comments on the issue. Rugby Australia is under pressure from their sponsors to deal strongly with this incident, as they do not want their brands to be associated with any type of anti-gay comments or rhetoric.

This case reminds me of some reading I did on the case of Chick-fil-A, a fast food restaurant in America. The restaurant chain has a Christian ethos and their purpose as stated on their website is: "To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us. To have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A". They were involved in a controversy in June and July of 2012, when their Chief Operating Officer Dan T. Cathy made several public statements about same-sex marriage. He said that those who "have the audacity to define what marriage is about" were "inviting God's judgement on our nation". These comments led to calls for boycotting the restaurants, blocking the opening of new franchises and in retaliation, Chick-fila-A supporters organised an Appreciation Day in counter to the boycotts’.

So what can we learn from these two events?

Being anti-gay or anti-LGBTQ+ is an allegation that brands don’t want to be associated with, and those who have been accused of making anti-gay or anti-LGBTQ+ comments are universally criticised. One of England's rugby players, Billy Vunipola, who liked Folau’s posts, was then criticised in the UK press, and his club Saracens and the RFU said they would meet with him to discuss his actions. Racism is a similar toxic issue which brands and individuals don’t want to be associated with. When one of Starbucks' managers had two African American men arrested in the coffee shop whilst they waited for a friend, they were quick to realise that this would be seen as a racist incident. They shut down all stores in the USA for an afternoon so that all staff could receive race training. It was very clear that Starbucks didn’t want to be tainted with any hint of racism.

In the Guardian newspaper's report on the Rugby Australian code of conduct hearing, they said that Folau’s argument will be that he has strong Christian beliefs and he was expressing these by quoting the Bible in his post. They argue that he was not being anti-gay but just expressing his Christian beliefs. It is Rugby Australia's unenviable task to come to a decision on the Folau case, but as business continuity or crisis managers we do have to point out some of the complexities of such cases to our crisis management team. We need to ask those managing the response to similar incidents to think through the complexities and issues before acting, commenting or responding.

In crisis management, one of the rules you should stick to during an incident is being true to your brand. The public and media are very quick to criticise a brand which says one thing and portrays a particular image and then does something different in response to an incident. KFC was a good example in their ‘lack of chicken’ incident. Their advertising before the incident was light-hearted and fun, and during the incident they got a lot of praise for their full page newspaper advert with an empty bucket of chicken and the slogan 'FCK' on the side. If they had tried to portray the incident seriously, I think their media and reputation management would not have been so effective.

Many of the South Sea Islanders who play rugby have strong Christian views. Often before games they can be seen down on one knee in a group, praying together and they do the same at the end of the game. When they score, you can see that there is a visible thank you to God as part of their celebration. So perhaps a mitigating factor in the Folau case is that religion is not a convenient excuse to get him out of a difficult situation, but is a strong held belief.

This is a similar situation for Chick-fil-A. The company make no secret of their Christian beliefs and are one of the very few restaurants I know of which closes every Sunday, as well as at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Perhaps their views in 2012 should have come as no surprise from such as strong Christian organisation.

According to Wikipedia, “As of April 2018, Chick-fil-A reportedly continues to quietly donate to anti-LGBT groups such as the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, which opposes gay marriage and restricts participation by LGBT youth”. Note that the word used there is 'quietly', as I think that if the same announcement that was made by the COO in 2012 was made today, there would a greater backlash against them.

We live in a politically correct era, so we know if we express certain views or opinions as individuals or as organisations we can expect to be extremely criticised. On the other hand, we have to accept that others will hold views contrary to this, not just as opinions but as strongly held beliefs, so we must recognise this. We as crisis managers also know that dealing with an incident with a religious element makes the incident handling a lot more sensitive. All I can advise is to tread carefully, recognise that there will be sensitivities and think through your decisions, actions and communications.



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