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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Chick-fil-A is backing away from controversial comments by its president. He caused a stir when he spoke out last week against same-sex marriage. The company now says it will stay out of policy debates as protests and counterprotests spring up at Chick-fil-A stores across the country. In Washington, D.C., yesterday, about two dozen activists demonstrated at a Chick-fil-A lunch truck.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Chicken is good. Chicken is great. Why we got to discriminate? Chicken is good.

SIEGEL: NPR's Elise Hu has this story on the risks and rewards for companies that take controversial political positions.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Chick-fil-A has long stood by its Bible-based roots, keeping stores closed on Sundays and donating to Christian causes. But when its president, Dan Cathy, went public to defend his company's stance against gay marriage, he set off considerable controversy.

DAN CATHY: I pray God's mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we would have the audacity to try to redefine what marriage is all about.

HU: Backlash spread swiftly on social media and beyond. It's too soon to see bottom-line impact, but mayors of a few major cities now want to stop Chick-fil-A's expansion. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino pledged to block new restaurants from opening in Beantown. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee both say the chain doesn't share their cities' values. Wharton School of Business professor Americus Reed, who studies brand loyalty among consumers, says Cathy underestimated what might happen once his comments to a Baptist newspaper and a syndicated radio show got out.

AMERICUS REED: I think that this is part of the wake-up call for companies to understand that social media makes these decisions very, very risky because it's much easier now for these messages to get out amongst consumers and consumers to virtually organize.

HU: But other companies see the risks of taking public social stances differently. This year, a handful of big brands have made headlines for their support of same-sex rights and benefits.

HOWARD SCHULTZ: From time to time, we are going to make a decision that we think is consistent with the heritage and the tradition of the company that perhaps may be inconsistent with one group's view of the world.

HU: That's Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz at a shareholder meeting in March. He explained the coffee giant's pro-gay positions were about making its employees proud and aligning with corporate values.

SCHULTZ: Since we made that decision, there has not been any dilution whatsoever in our business, and as you can see, shareholder value has increased significantly.

HU: Beyond brand alignment, corporate reputation specialist Sekou Bermiss says companies may be motivated to contribute to community good.

SEKOU BERMISS: More and more, you see firms that are trying to or feel obliged to certain issues in society, do some kind of good in greater society.

HU: Firms like Starbucks, Target and General Mills stepped into the social issue by supporting gay marriage legislation in their home states. Each now face ongoing boycotts led by the National Organization for Marriage, but the group says it's unsure whether the boycotts are having any financial impact. And after JCPenney hired Ellen DeGeneres as its spokesperson...

ELLEN LEE DEGENERES: It's true. I'm gay. I hope you're sitting down.

(LAUGHTER)

HU: ...One Million Moms, a self-described pro-family group, called for her firing.

DEGENERES: They wanted to get me fired, and I am proud and happy to say that JCPenney stuck by their decision to make me their spokesperson.

(APPLAUSE)

HU: Not only did the retailer stand by DeGeneres, it ran Mother's and Father's Day ads featuring same-sex couples. But Wharton's Americus Reed says most big companies remain cautious and do their best to keep out of the culture wars.

REED: I think most brands are keeping their heads down because these are very controversial sorts of strategies, and it probably makes sense, good business sense to not weigh in on these issues.

HU: A lesson Chick-fil-A seems to be learning. It declined our requests for an interview, but in a statement said, quote, "Going forward, our intent is to leave the policy debate to the political arena." Elise Hu, NPR News.

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