The Public Relations Strategist

In the C-Suite: The Long-Term Effects of a Controversial Action in Indiana

July 20, 2015

Saying that Indiana Gov. Mike Pence is having a bad year is like saying Boston got a little snow this past winter.

Boston has since dug out. But Pence won’t be able to do the same for some time.

A former Congressman, the conservative Republican left Washington in 2013 with a reputation as a media-savvy and stout defender of the news media’s rights. He was proud of his media-friendly image. But that image would not survive his future miscues.

As 2015 approached, Pence was a popular governor and, some even said, a potential Republican presidential candidate. But by midyear, he could hardly qualify as either.

First came the JustIN debacle in January. The Indianapolis Star exposed a plan to create a state-run news outlet that would effectively compete with wire services, among others, for newspaper space. Critics charged it would be nothing more than a propaganda vehicle for the administration, offering a one-sided presentation of key issues.

Both local and national media erupted in amazement and outrage, comparing JustIN to state-run media outlets in China, North Korea and the former Soviet Union, dubbing it “Pravda on the Prairie.” The firestorm caused an embarrassed Pence to cancel the project before it even launched.

But serious damage had been done to the governor’s reputation. Even GOP legislators began to make jokes about his performance.

However, the worst was yet to come.

On March 26, Pence signed RFRA, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. He said the Republican-sponsored bill would protect people with sincere religious beliefs from government laws and actions that would infringe on their religious practices. Opponents, however, claimed it was intended to give businesses the right to refuse services to the LGBTQ community.

While he claimed high-minded intentions, it didn’t help that the governor signed the bill in private, witnessed only by a handful of staunch religious lobbyists who had pushed for it.

There was more bad national publicity, this time tinged with outrage:

  • Some major Indiana-based businesses threatened to move out of state, and others canceled expansion plans.
  • Indianapolis-based organizations such as the NCAA started considering if they should move or continue staging big events, such as college basketball’s Final Four, in the Hoosier capital.
  • Mayors of major cities, business leaders and legislators — even some Republicans — expressed outrage at the development.

The governor’s approval ratings among Indiana voters fell into negative territory.

Pence held his ground, however, and said, “We are not going to change this law.” But a week later, he signed a bill that effectively negated the statute.

What happened in that brief period that changed his course? The key development was on March 28, on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” where Pence’s answers were often long-winded and evasive. On 13 occasions, he referred to "government infringement on religious rights and freedoms, and to misinformation, mischaracterization, misunderstanding," and "shameless and reckless" media coverage eight times. But not once did he answer a simple yes or no question:

Did the legislation give Hoosier businesses the right to discriminate against gays and lesbians?

An unbiased observer could only conclude that it did. Otherwise, why not just say no?

The outcry escalated and pressure on the governor increased.

Local journalists didn’t fare any better than ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in their efforts to get a straight answer. Indianapolis Star reporter Mike Swarens said that his interview with Pence on possible expansion of the state’s civil rights laws to include sexual orientation “felt like an episode of ‘Dancing with the Stars.’”

Pence tried to wish the problem away a fortnight later by declaring, “I think the difficult time that Indiana just passed through two weeks ago is behind us” — the epitome of wishful thinking.

It continued to get worse in June, when a Republican pollster reported that more than 50 percent of the population said they wanted a new governor. Less than 33 percent said they would vote to reelect Pence. And 54 percent of the respondents said they would support adding sexual orientation and gender identity to Indiana’s civil rights laws.

Reputation management

The Pence debacle had a number of long-term effects:

  • The state had to invest more than $2 million to hire a PR firm to help repair its battered image. The state later backed out of the deal after spending $365,000. There wasn’t any indication of what they got for that money.
  • Some organizations have taken Indiana off their “A-lists” of convention and conference sites, with others taking a wait-and-see stance.
  • The governor’s communications director left in May, resigning to “spend more time with family.”
  • The gay community became energized, and a push for a statewide law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation gained momentum.
  • In June, the annual Gay Pride Parade in Indianapolis drew more than 100,000 people, a record. The Republican mayor of Indianapolis, who had opposed the legislation, was the grand marshal.

Pence’s miscues provide a number of lessons for people in the public eye. Here are a few:

  • Thoroughly analyze the likely reaction of all constituents before taking a controversial action.
  • Be transparent. Actions taken in private invite criticism and suspicion.
  • Don’t blame the news media or Internet chatter for negative publicity; the victim game is never convincing.
  • Don’t go on national television unless you are prepared to effectively respond to the tough questions. Evasion doesn’t work.
Virgil Scudder
Virgil Scudder is the author of “World Class Communication: How Great CEOs Win With the Public, Shareholders, Employees, and the Media,” which received an Award of Distinction as one of the best business books of 2012. Email: virgil@virgilscudder.com.

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