While the entire U.S., and indeed much of the world, was glued to television sets watching a massive manhunt for one of the alleged Boston Marathon bombers, the Boy Scouts of America thought it would be the perfect time to announce that they will finally be taking a long-delayed vote at a national meeting on May 20 about whether to overturn their controversial policy banning homosexuals from scouting.
In p.r. parlance, this is called “burying the news.” It works like this: when an organization doesn’t want an announcement to get attention then they release the information on a busy news day, or a Friday, or in this case, both. The thinking is that more pressing news will overshadow the story; that the shift between weekday and weekend staffs at news organizations will help it “get lost in the shuffle”; and that by the time Monday rolls around, more current events will have overshadowed the announcement, essentially making it “old news.”
As a veteran media-relations counselor, I have executed this strategy myself. And depending on what is being announced, it can work. But in this case, it not only has no chance for success, it’s almost guaranteed to anger both the media and the interested parties and cast the Boy Scouts in a more negative lights. The end result is that not only is the issue not buried, it gets even more attention.
It’s not surprising that the Boy Scouts used such a misguided tactic. They have handled the public aspects of this issue badly ever since it first became a topic of discussion in the early 1980s. As recently as January, they announced that they would be voting on a resolution at a national executive meeting, only to contradict themselves by later announcing that the issue “needed more study.”
Not only that, but the compromise that will be voted on in May is sure to appease no one: it allows gay scouts but not gay or lesbian leaders. This calls to attention the sexual orientation of what is essentially a membership of underage boys while at the same time reinforcing the scientifically incorrect and blatantly homophobic stereotype of adult gays and lesbian as pedophiliac predators.
I understand why the Scouts would prefer that this issue simply go away, but that’s not going to happen. The fight for gay and lesbian rights is arguably the civil rights battle of our time. Moreover, the Boy Scouts is running a grave risk of permanently damaging its reputation not only with p.r. blunders but also by being “on the wrong side of history.” If I were advising the Scouts in this situation, I would point out the following:
1. No decision you make is going to please everyone. This issue is too polarizing, beliefs are too strongly held, and you will likely lose members whatever you decide.
2. We live in a transparent world. Every discussion, every meeting, every e-mail and every vote is a public moment. If the head of the CIA can’t keep his e-mails private, you don’t have a chance.
3. Both presidential candidates opposed this ban, nearly 60% of the country supports gay marriage, and the opposition is literally dying off as younger people support gay rights by an even larger margin than do the elderly.
4. Diversity will not weaken the scouting mission, as has been shown in business, politics and even the military. The Scouts will end up stronger, more impassioned and more unified as a result of tolerance and inclusion.
But this is not a marketing issue. It is a moral issue, and the right decision should be strikingly clear.