Arment Dietrich

Hobby Lobby, Values, and Social Media

By: Arment Dietrich | July 10, 2014 | 
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Hobby Lobby, Values, and Social MediaBy Clay Morgan

I wasn’t certain what I wanted to write about during July, a month of “social business” as our Spin Sucks theme.

Then the Supreme Court of the United States ruled on the “Hobby Lobby” case and suddenly I had a great idea.

Let’s see if I can execute.

Social and Business Values

When I wrote on the topic of customer service in June, I spoke a great deal about values – how your company’s values and your values – must play into your customer service efforts.

The same holds true for how you treat employees, how you pay them, and what types of benefits you offer.

When it comes to the treatment of employees, good businesses and bad businesses cross all religious lines. When it comes to how well employees are treated, good (or bad) performance is not limited to Christians, Muslims, Hindus, atheists, or bug worshipers.

The case has its roots in contraception – Hobby Lobby is the best-known of the plaintiffs, but a number of companies with religious leaders sued over an Affordable Care Act requirement that they cover all types of contraception.

Religious non-profits already have exemptions, and the companies argued successfully in a 5-4 decision (is there any other type at SCOTUS?), that the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act should protect them from having to provide services that violate the owners’ religious beliefs.

The Hobby Lobby Example

I was intrigued by the reactions on social media after the decision came down. Among my friends, there were two extremes: One was “Hobby Lobby is what is wrong with America,” and the other is, “Yay! God won!”

These were posted by friends who are overtly pro- or anti-religion. And to be fair, Hobby Lobby and their fellow plaintiffs painted this as a religious freedom case. Only one friend posted a link to a news story and simply asked, “What do you think?”

Hobby Lobby, of course, posted a link on their Facebook page that generated more than 10,000 comments. As the hours passed, the vitriol in the conversation increased.

hobby lobby vitriol and response hobby lobby hl comments

What will be curious is whether or not Hobby Lobby and the other companies involved in the suit, including Mennonite-owned Conestoga Wood Specialties, will see a positive or negative effect on their business.

I say “positive or negative” because public uproar has not always hurt businesses. When most of the population seemed to protest the Chick-fil-A anti-gay marriage stance, for instance, the company had a record year. On the other hand, some brands (Susan G. Komen) were pretty much destroyed by social media.

The Battleground

There is a change underway.

Things that were once unacceptable are now commonplace and some people feel they are being asked to give ground on long-held, strong beliefs.

The battle will continue for some time. What are religious beliefs and how should they be recognized? Are they discriminatory? Should a company be allowed to stick to its values and offer benefits as it sees fit? Where is the line between values and civil rights?

What if your core values fly in the face of what a group of people believe?

These are complex questions and they are being fought on two battlegrounds: The legal courts and the court of public opinion through social media.

As your business, and you as the owner, determines what its values are, are you prepared to engage a battle on the social media front?

In the case of the Hobby Lobby/SCOTUS decision, there is some misinformation. People want to say Hobby Lobby is opposed to contraception. The company itself has stated it will cover 16 of 20 FDA-approved, ACA-mandated forms of contraceptions. Their opposition is essentially to covering the morning after pill and IUDs.

Covering 16 of 20 is not enough for some people, just as it is way too much for others. And the decision by the Supreme Court is only making the debate rage harder.

The social media world is framing the debate as a God thing, a tyrant thing, a debate on if God exists, sexism, feminism, and in some cases, arguments that SCOTUS has just legalized racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination.

Your Reaction

Think about your values and what you believe is central to running your business. Now, imagine a threat on social media if you don’t change those values or the way you run your company. How will you react?

Right now, as I write this on June 30 and July 1, Hobby Lobby is, I think, doing the right things. They are responding, but in a fairly straight-forward, fact-based manner. They’ve created a website with information and for those who will take the time to read their posts, they are trying to clear up their stance.

Opponents may still not agree with the stance, but if they take time to read, they will know what it actually is they oppose.

Here are a few steps to follow if you find yourself in an online fight:

  • Don’t get stuck in the mud. Going toe-to-toe with someone will not work, so just stay out of the argument. Keep your emotions in check. This is often harder than it seems.
  • Do correct erroneous information. A lot of bad information will fly in every direction. Take the time to post correct information.
  • Have clear social media policies in place and make certain your employees know them and follow them.
  • Continue with business as usual. Hobby Lobby has continued to post coupons, shopping lists, and other information on their social media.

My last piece of advice, though, is to just hang on. You can’t control social media and eventually, the conversation will turn elsewhere.

Note from Gini: Remember this is a communications blog. Please keep the conversation to what Hobby is doing – and not doing – so well in their communications and social media efforts

  • The four bullet-points you shared are great! I stopped shopping at Hobby Lobby a long time ago (and I am getting to a communications point I promise!), long before this lawsuit had materialized. I heard (not first hand but from a reliable source) that a local customer asked where the Hanukkah supplies were and was told, “oh we don’t do that holiday.” Now, this may have been one funky outlier of an experience (although a similar incident was detailed here: http://www.ajc.com/weblogs/biz-beat/2013/oct/03/hobby-lobby-apologizes-jewish-customers/ ). I suppose H.L. can choose to carry whatever inventory they would like to but communications-wise a response of “we don’t do that holiday” is much different from, “I really apologize; we don’t currently have any Hanukkah (or whatever) materials in stock. I will be glad to share your request with management. In the meantime, can I help you find another local vendor who does?” // The communications takeaway for me being that it was how one customer was treated (with additional evidence of others being treated the same way) that turned me off long before the results of the Supreme Court case became an issue.

  • EmilyNKantner

    I was surprised to see how active Hobby Lobby was on social media throughout the entire process. But I agree–I think they are handling the situation well.

  • EmilyNKantner I agree. The hardest part, probably, is riding the storm out, as REO Speedwagon would put it.

  • biggreenpen Clearly a case of bad customer service (poor training?) It leaves you wondering do they not carry Hanukkah materials because of a business decision? Or a religious objection? Or a lack of foresight?

  • ClayMorgan biggreenpen I am not sure. I will do some more poking around … I seem to remember some follow up activity around the issue/question. I may do a field study locally. 🙂

  • biggreenpen It’s kind of surprising, because they do Halloween stuff … I wonder if it’s just a sales issue.

  • Eleanor Pierce biggreenpen subsequent to the kerfuffle, they put out a statement saying they would be introducing some Hanukkah related items in NY and NJ (based on the premise that this is the geographical area most likely to want it, I think).  This article has some of the details:  http://www.theblaze.com/stories/2013/10/07/hobby-lobby-president-apologizes-pledges-to-carry-jewish-holiday-items-after-blogger-claims-worker-said-they-dont-cater-to-you-people/  I also thought this article was a really interesting perspective:  http://www.tabletmag.com/scroll/147768/why-hobby-lobby-isnt-anti-semitic

  • Eleanor Pierce biggreenpen I wonder about the sales thing myself until Paula did some more digging.

    As I told her, my first job out of the Coast Guard (1992) was working for a frozen food wholesaler owned by a Jewish family. I asked the CEO one day why we didn’t sell Kosher. His response, “We’re in Memphis.” It was just a business decision.

    Don’t know if that was the case in the matter she discusses, but the employee certainly should have handled it a whole lot better!

  • MyrnaKJ

    I can only imagine how much offline venting there is in the Hobby Lobby social media office. We just wrapped up an event where we changed some of the things people could bring in (ex. no hard sided coolers, only factory sealed bottled water). Wow. The trolls and nay-sayers came out of the woodwork. Our official response remained the same, and like HL we repeated it over and over and over and over. But there was A LOT of venting from those of us who had to respond to all the comments.

  • I …
    Um …
    No, here’s the thing. It’s …
    Nope, sorry, can’t do it. Not without violating both the no politics and no cursing rules. But I commend the level-headed among you.

  • MyrnaKJ change brings out the worst in people sometimes!

  • MyrnaKJ Replying appropriately during a crisis is a lot of work. That’s for sure. 

    Even in good times it can be a lot of work. There are days when a blog post here generates over 100 comments, plus all the social media mentions, and most of the team here feels it is important to respond to most, if not all, of them.

  • RobBiesenbach Eh. I don’t care, but Gini might!

  • ClayMorgan RobBiesenbach Yes, I do care! It’s against our policy!

  • MyrnaKJ That had to be so frustrating. Like pull your hair out frustrating.

  • Well, I have to say I’m surprised no one has taken off on the political bent of this situation. Bravo, Crazies! Bravo!

  • Ok, I’m going to weigh in on the political issues here…..JUST KIDDING!! 😉 I agree, I think they weathered the storm really well, ‘just the facts, ma’am’ – and I learned a thing or two about the actual case and ruling just from reading this post. 🙂

  • I disagree with you on this one Clay, I don’t think it’s clear that they’ve handled this well.

    I will do my best not to get political here – but in order to make my next point (which IS communications related) I have to dip slightly into that arena and say that any person or org with values that compel them to tell another person (man, woman, trans, etc…) how and in what ways they should exercise their personal healthcare needs, well, to me that’s a bad idea and a massive communications mistake.
    Whether or not Hobby Lobby successfully managed the situation in the short term, they drew a line which reflects a value that simply can’t be substantiated across the whole company. It’s the personal value and opinion of the owners (and perhaps senior leadership). 
    It’s a lot different from saying “we encourage our employees to consider their options, read over this material we provide, etc…” It’s saying that employees cannot determine their own personal healthcare choices, because senior leadership & ownership have specific, individual values that everyone else has to also carry (that’s very, very different from encouraging, educating, presenting one’s own values, etc…). 
    I imagine the argument would take an interesting turn if the owners said that
    employee pay could go toward anything except alcohol, or soda, and I think there’s a certain clouding of how religious freedom works in this case because they’re positioning it as a push aka “I get to tell you what you can and
    can’t do” instead of a pull aka “you can’t infringe on my beliefs and
    rights.”

    It’s a subtle argument, but it matters in communications because regardless of whether an employee agrees with the owner values or not, there’s a clear message being sent that “you get to make your own choices unless I disagree with them” and I’d argue that that’s going to be bad in the long term for both retaining employees and customers, as well as the overall brand health.
    We’ll see how big of a mistake that is. When you’re dealing with perceptions, it takes time to see changes. I agree w/your point that they are doing a good job of correcting misinformation, but I think they’re missing the boat on the rest.

    Apologies to ginidietrich, I hope you find this response civil and not too combatitive, and that my point, although subtle, stands on its own as a question about what brands/co’s should do with personal and moral values (IMHO: stay away from applying them to an entire company. Business values – honesty, fairness, transparency – are not as easily comparable to an individual’s as most people think.)

  • ginidietrich I might have just done that a little. But tried to stay focused on what I see as the main issue at play: values of individual ownership/senior leadership not necessarily wise to apply across company.
    Let me know if y’all are going to put me in time-out = )

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