A Biased but Apolitical Commentary on Indiana
In the last month, Indiana has seen substantial fall-out from the enactment and then "clarification" of the religious freedom bill. Deservedly so. Not because of the content or intent behind the bill. I will leave it to others to debate those issues. Rather, I believe this may be a classic case of the inherent public relations nightmares caused by hubris and lack of transparency.
There is an old adage that one should never discuss sex, religion or politics. While it is probably impossible to completely avoid these discussions in contemporary society, people should at least be mindful that they are inherently hot button issues likely to generate serious attention in the media and public conversation. Several organizations that may have been sympathetic to the spirit of the proposed law or would typically be neutral in their public comments on such issues expressed serious reservations in advance of the vote. Their warnings went unheeded as Governor Mike Pence and the legislative leaders pushed ahead with their plans. And after the bill passed both houses, the Governor signed it into law during a private ceremony closed to the press and the public.
In the wake of the ensuing firestorm, Pence attempted damage control by going on various network TV public affairs programs such as ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos. The general consensus was that Pence was evasive and not very well prepared. Given his previous experience as a radio talk show host, this is all the more surprising.
Now the latest news out just this past week. Indiana has hired the global public relations firm, Porter Novelli, to help enhance the state’s reputation. Or in the words of Victor Smith, Indiana’s secretary of commerce, "Now more than ever, we want to remind the world that Hoosiers welcome everyone and that Indiana is a great place for individuals, entrepreneurs and businesses to reach their full potential.”
Aside from the obvious fact that the whole situation was avoidable in the first place and this action is probably too little, too late, I have another problem with this decision. If Indiana is truly “a great place for individuals, entrepreneurs and businesses to reach their full potential” (and I believe it is), are there really no businesses with the requisite skills to provide effective public relations counsel?
No, I am not advocating for Villing & Company to be hired for this challenging assignment. Our staff is probably a bit small for the enormity of the task. Nor am I suggesting Porter Novelli is not an outstanding PR agency with global connections. But is it really global connections the state needs so much as good, common sense crisis communications skills? There are many outstanding agencies that fit that description right here in the Hoosier state. And to the degree broader geographic outreach may be needed, strategic alliances are commonplace in this industry.
Not everyone agrees with me on this issue. Jeannine Villing who heads our PR division believes the Porter Novelli hire was the appropriate decision. Specifically, she commented, “I think it's wise that they got a well-respected, non-Indiana agency to help. Porter Novelli is known for this type of work and will bring to the table background and previous experience that should help get Indiana's name back on track – in the right way. They bring an "outside-the-state" perspective that will be helpful.”
Point taken. My view, however, is that no one would be more sensitive to the pain and impact this matter has caused to the Indiana business community than the people who live and work here. And frankly, had one of our own been called to consult on the matter before the fact, much of this pain could have been avoided.
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