Have you heard of Abby Farle? She’s become quite famous in social media circles over the last 48 hours. There are plenty of people who probably wish they hadn't - mostly within the PR and marketing department at Chick-fil-A.
'Abby' is just your average American high school kid who's right behind fast food firm Chick-fil-A in its stance against gay marriage and the resulting social media nightmare that has been served up with fries for the firm.
‘Abby’ took to Facebook to let the world know of her backing for the firm which has faced a PR and reputational onslaught since company President Dan Cathy’s comments about marriage equality to a Southern Baptist newspaper went viral on the internet and caused a social media backlash against the company, whose profits help fund various right wing and religious fundamentalist groups.
The comments - in which Cathy made clear that he is an out and proud supporter of making sure same sex marriage never happens - led to an embarassingly public condemnation by the Muppets when the Jim Henson Company announced it was breaking off a merchandising deal with the firm which had given away Muppet toys to its younger customers.
The Henson organisation was quite explicit in its reasons for ditching the lucrative contract: it was entirely down to Cathy’s comments on gay marriage and that the Muppets were donating their entire fee from Chick-fil-A to the GLAAD gay lobby group just to ram it home.
But in an what seems to be an attempt at spinning the story, according to Chick-fil-A it was in fact the fast food firm that decided to recall all the Muppet giveaways because it now seems that they were dangerous and children had been getting their fingers stuck inside them. Apparently.
While several online commentators wondered at the remarkable coincidence that Chick-fil-A should notice this peril to young digits at the same time that the Henson Company went public with its condemnation of Cathy, others were more blunt, accusing Chick-fil-A of simply lying to save face.
One poster on the Chick-fil-A Facebook page stormed:
"So your muppet toy 'recall' had nothing to do with Jim-Henson not supporting you being an ignorant homophobic establishment and no longer doing business with you eh? Ok, if you say so... SMH."
'Abby' to the rescue
This was all too much for ‘Abby’ who, with remarkable corporate insight for a simple teenage fried chicken fan, appeared to know that the decision to pull the Muppets toys "was taken back weeks before any of this...check your info", adding a biblical reference for good measure.
When questioned about her inside knowledge of what would of course have been a pretty major executive decision involving a costly, high profile sponsor, ‘Abby’ then adopted perhaps a more teenage approach to her response:
“My friend went to chickfila 3 weeks ago and there was no toys - derr.”
The problem with all of this though is twofold.
Firstly, ‘Abby’ only set up her Facebook profile 8 hours earlier. Now this is of course entirely possible, although it does seem a tad unlikely that:
- she’s one of the few teenagers in America not to have a Facebook profile already
- that it was a Muppet-centric, God-ly values PR nightmare for a corporation that finally incited her to join Facebook.
Secondly – and perhaps more difficult to explain – ‘Abby’ bears a striking resemblance to a stock photo.
What's more, her name isn’t Abby Farle, but is in fact Pretty Redhead Teenager Isolated On White Smiling.
Now there seems little room for doubt that this is a false profile set up by someone to attempt a social media fight-back against the PR backlash, so the only question then becomes: who set it up?
Two immediate possibilities spring to mind:
- It was some random supporter of Chick-fil-A whose devotion to the cause of the firm’s trademark waffle fries is so great that he or she donned the guise of a teenage girl to fight the good fight. That's brand loyalty for you!
- It was a PR or marketing flack within Chick-fil-A making an extraordinarily ham-fisted job of trying to turn the tide of opinion, but just ending up super-sizing (with apologies to Ronald McDonald) the existing PR mess. That's inept brand management for you!
For what it’s worth, Chick-fil-A is denying any knowledge of the fake Facebook profile:
Meanwhile ‘Abby’/ Pretty Redhead Teenager Isolated On White Smiling/whoever has gone remarkably quiet – again unusual behaviour perhaps for a stroppy teenager engaged in a social media flame war, but there you go.
Can it get worse? Here comes Sarah Palin!
So the PR nightmare continues and everything suggests at this point that Chick-fil-A has lost control of its media response. By now a savvy social marketing team should have mounted some form of damage containment, but instead faux pas seems to follow faux pas.
And it seems unlikely to go away as this has now become a political debate. The Mayor of Boston has already said he’ll block Chick-fil-A from setting up in his city while his counterpart in Chicago has taken a similar tack, enraging conservative bloggers such as the influential Michelle Malkin who blogged that:
“When an elected public official wields the club of government against a Christian business in the name of 'tolerance', it’s not harmless kid stuff. It’s chilling.”
Meanwhile failed right wing US Presidential candidates are queuing up for a slice of the action. Mick Huckabee has already called on all true Americans to eat Chick-fil-A burgers next week in support of a God-fearing all-American success story, while the even more right wing Rick Santorum - who likens gay marriage to slavery - found time to tweet to his followers that he was of course:
"With two of my boys, Enjoying chick-in-strips and an awesome peach shake at Chick-fil-A. See you here next Wednesday!"
And of course with headlines up for grabs, the never-knowingly-ignored Sarah Palin - one of the mainstream US politicians whose team does understand how to use social media - weighed in with:
“The left wing’s double standard with intolerance of other people’s opinions in quite tiring, yet so expected. This is merely more of the same.”
Indeed, such is the momentum that this is all gathering, some conservative commentators are calling on the official Republican candidate Mitt Romney to make a statement and turn this into a US election issue.
From one comment to an offline Southern Baptist newspaper to election issue in America – if it were to happen, that would be some journey in a short space of time.
And at the heart of it, one fast food firm’s inability to respond to reputational threat using the same social media tools being used so effectively to agitate against it.
(Of course, it would have helped if Cathy had never aired his homophobia in the first place, but too late now…)