(USA Today) -- Chick-fil-A has something unexpected to crow about.
Consumer use, visits and ad awareness were all up measurably in the third quarter, at a time the chicken chain appeared to be taking a public relations drubbing, reports research specialist Sandelman & Associates.
Intense national media and social media attention - much of it negative - was heaped on the chain three months ago, after President Dan Cathy told a religious publication that his company was "guilty as charged" in supporting the biblical definition of the family unit.
Many gay rights groups called for boycotts, and company executives seemed to be put on the defensive. At the same time, supporters of the Atlanta-based chicken chain held rallies outside stores. The national media couldn't get enough of it.
So much for "bad" PR. Consumer use of the chain was up 2.2% in the third quarter compared with the same period in 2011, says the Sandelman survey of more than 30,000 fast-food consumers conducted in markets where Chick-fil-A is located. Market share was up 0.6%, and total ad awareness was up a hefty 6.5%.
In a social-media-crazed world, any PR can be good PR - particularly if it has strong appeal to a group of ardent supporters. Witness the recent jump in contributions to LiveStrong Foundation at a time Lance Armstrong, the organization's founder, was forced to step down in disgrace.
Chick-fil-A, too, seems unstoppable. "There was a lot of talk that this would hurt Chick-fil-A, but it actually helped the brand," says Jeff Davis, president of Sandelman. During the third quarter, Chick-fil-A broadened its regular customer base in 28 of 35 media markets, he says.
Chick-fil-A declined comment.
Last month, the chain seemed to soften its tone. "Our intent is not to support political or social agendas," Steve Robinson, executive vice president for marketing for Chick-fil-A, said in a statement. Chick-fil-A's culture, he said, "is to treat every person with honor, dignity and respect - regardless of their belief, race, creed, sexual orientation or gender."
Some PR execs are confounded.
"Chick-fil-A did everything wrong in the book," says Chris Goddard, president of CGPR. "Their president shot from the hip, and his PR team was not equipped or prepared (to respond). It was a PR disaster and a clear case of what not to do in a crisis."
But other PR execs say it confirms their suspicions that not all brands must appeal to everyone. "Brands that take risks can win big rewards, but they must be prepared for the backlash that comes with it," says Ronn Torossian, CEO at 5WPR. "They were saying to their core constituency: Here's what we believe."