Boy Scouts Policy on Gays: Is There a PR Method Behind the Madness?
By Adele Gambardella-Cehrs, Owner, Epic PR Group
The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) has once again decided to affirm its stance that it will, “not grant membership to open or avowed homosexuals.” So why this announcement? And, more importantly, why now?
From an outside perspective, the boy scouts current PR approach seems to be is to side with the views of its religious and conservative members, while trying to avert criticism from the media that is largely in support of gay rights.
Even though BSA’s decision to “ban all gays” clearly goes against the very mission of the organization to, “prepare young people to make ethical and moral choices over their lifetime,” BSA is not wavering. This extreme positioning strategy is interesting to examine.
Motivation: More than Meets the Eye?
For years, the membership of the BSA has been on the decline. Was this policy a part of a larger growth strategy? As backwards as it sounds, the answer just may be yes. As a membership and volunteer-based organization, the BSA’s survival depends largely on the approval and support of its millions of rank and file. A rank and file rooted largely within religious communities in suburban settings. According to the BSA, 65% of all scout chapters are sponsored by religious organizations. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) sponsors approximately 30,000 (20%) of the chapters and 400,000 (15%) of the BSA’s actual memberships are LDS. The Catholic Church sponsors many troops as well. Both of these religious organizations are unapologetically opposed to homosexuality.
Therefore, success of the 150,000 troops (chapters) around the US is largely dependent on the religious organizations that sponsor these individual chapters. Does BSA’s anti-gay policy appeal to this community? Perhaps. Will it help increase membership? Too soon to tell but they certainly seem to be better aligning themselves with their core supporters. Look at the success and growth of the Tea Party Movement.
What is their Defense?
The general tendency in a crisis response strategy is to identify and react to any and all criticism. This is especially true given the increased authority and power of social media. So why didn’t we hear more from BSA when their statement sparked major criticism? Analogous to the old mantra “any publicity is good publicity,” many organizations and communications professionals tend to think that “any criticism is detrimental criticism.” This is not always true.
For example, if an organization’s base membership approves of policies and values, no matter how generally unpopular, then there may be no need to address or respond to criticisms at large. In fact, any attempt to apologize for or amend internally popular policies to assuage general public criticism may actually prove detrimental for membership and stakeholder relations. Perhaps response was not necessary; however the delivery of the announcement could have been much improved. This will be examined more later.
The Media Perspective: BSA is the Bad Guy
The media has highlighted prominent dissenters from the BSA’s anti-gay policies such as its board member, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, and the Ohio den leader Jennifer Tyrrell who was dismissed for being a lesbian. Additionally, there has been intense debate as to whether certain “archaic” policies are just. Whenever sexuality is part of the discussion involving adolescents, debate will be heated. However, this does not change the simple fact that the base and lifeblood of the BSA are religious sponsors, members, and volunteers. It is also important to remember that the BSA also bans atheists or agnostics (or girls for that matter) from their organization. Exclusion is inherent in their culture.
So while the BSA could never have won with the media at large, their policy is historically consistent with their membership structure.
The Missed Opportunity
From a PR perspective, the way in which BSA announced the policy felt cold and heartless. What they could have done was given more supporting context to the decision. Chick-Fil-A does this really well. The founder, Dan Cathy has always been transparent in his religious beliefs and is upfront in how those beliefs guide the operations of the business. While his beliefs include an opposition to same sex marriage, he has also softened his tone by ensuring his costumers that Chick-Fil-A will “continue its tradition…of treating every person with honor, dignity and respect—regardless of their belief, race, creed, sexual orientation or gender.” The BSA may not be selling chicken sandwiches but they could better articulate the demographics of the organization.
Further, BSA could conduct an anonymous survey of its leaders, volunteers, staff, and members (parents would be surveyed for scouts under 18), asking the simple question: “In your opinion, should the BSA allow openly gay members and leaders?” The response would certainly either support or refute their claims that “this policy reflects the beliefs and perspectives of the BSA’s members.”
The BSA will certainly struggle to remain relevant and popular in a country that is largely moving in support same sex marriage, open military service for homosexuals, and general acceptance of the queer community. BSA must also contend with a general decrease in participation and enrolment in all fraternal organizations (47% in recent years). BSA needs to include language in their policy statement that the organization’s policies are fluid and may evolve to match future opinions of their membership. This shows obligation and deference to their members because it makes it clear they will not alter policies without internal popular consent and it gives the general public a glimmer of hope that the organization can evolve and not become obsolete, archaic, and extinct.
Here is my take on how the BSA could have announced the policy:
The Boy Scouts of America is well aware that opinions and laws surrounding homosexuality are changing and we respect that. Our primary obligation is to our millions of members, leaders, and volunteers. A comprehensive and all-encompassing internal survey conducted in 2012 clearly showed that over 70% (author’s estimate) of our members, leaders, and volunteers are in agreement with our policy. Until this overwhelming majority opinion differs, the BSA will respect the wishes of our rank and file and return to our stated mission:
The purpose of the Boy Scouts of America—incorporated on Feb. 8, 1910, and chartered by Congress in 1916—is to provide an educational program for boys and young adults to build character, to train in the responsibilities of participating citizenship, and to develop personal fitness.
About the Author: Adele Gambardella-Cehrs is the owner of the Epic PR Group, a full-service agency, based in historic Old Town Alexandria, VA that specializes in the crisis communications and media training. Epic offers a free crisis communications assessment on its blog: PR Heat Index Blog. For more information visit them at: www.epicprgroup.com.