Be pre­pared, even for a Trump-boree

The Washington Post Sunday - - TAKING STOCK - ON LEAD­ER­SHIP BY JENA MCGRE­GOR jena.mcgre­gor@wash­

On Thurs­day morn­ing, sev­eral days af­ter Pres­i­dent Trump gave a re­mark­ably po­lit­i­cal speech to the Boy Scouts of Amer­ica, the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s “chief Scout ex­ec­u­tive,” Michael Sur­baugh, pub­lished a let­ter on its site about the con­tro­versy. In it, he ex­tended “my sin­cere apolo­gies to those in our Scout­ing fam­ily who were of­fended by the po­lit­i­cal rhetoric that was in­serted into the jam­boree” and said, “We sin­cerely re­gret that pol­i­tics were in­serted into the Scout­ing pro­gram.”

Yet the at­tempt to move on from a speech that prompted a mas­sive up­roar — Trump bragged about his elec­tion win, threat­ened to fire a Cabi­net mem­ber if Oba­macare’s re­peal didn’t get the votes and called the na­tion’s cap­i­tal a “cesspool” — was met only with more con­tro­versy and sharp divi­sion.

Af­ter the let­ter was posted on Face­book, com­menters ex­pressed ei­ther clear dis­may that the Scouts had apol­o­gized — “I’m of­fended by you try­ing to apol­o­gize for what the POTUS said,” wrote one — or com­plained it didn’t go nearly far enough. “A real apol­ogy would in­clude say­ing you do not ap­prove of what that man said,” wrote an­other.

Cri­sis com­mu­ni­ca­tions ex­perts say the re­sponse to that apol­ogy, and the enor­mous task the Boy Scouts’ lead­ers had in nav­i­gat­ing it, re­flects the mas­sive di­vide that ex­ists in the coun­try.

The Boy Scouts faced a mine­field: a di­verse mem­ber­ship base, a so­cial-me­dia firestorm of an­gry par­ents and an un­scripted, ego­fu­eled pres­i­dent. But more and more, ex­perts say, the play­book for man­ag­ing such crises is less clear.

“We have now mi­grated from a sit­u­a­tion where you might be able to find a win-win to one where you’re more likely to end up in a lose-lose,” said Scott Far­rell, pres­i­dent of global cor­po­rate com­mu­ni­ca­tions for Golin, a pub­lic re­la­tions agency. “The sweet spot is in­cred­i­bly dif­fi­cult to find. It may not even ex­ist be­cause of how di­vided we’ve be­come,” he noted, adding that “one per­son’s apol­ogy is an­other per­son’s trig­ger.”

In­deed, even com­mu­ni­ca­tions ex­perts were di­vided on how well the Boy Scouts han­dled the fall­out from Trump’s speech. Over a week, the or­ga­ni­za­tion and its na­tional pres­i­dent, AT&T chief ex­ec­u­tive Ran­dall Stephen­son, re­sponded to the speech in state­ments and in­ter­views that drib­bled out — as the furor over the event and the Boy Scouts’ re­sponse to it seemed to grow. Not long af­ter the speech Mon­day, the or­ga­ni­za­tion put out a brief state­ment that said it was “wholly non-par­ti­san” and that it has long been a tra­di­tion to in­vite sit­ting pres­i­dents. An ex­panded state­ment Tues­day added that the in­vi­ta­tion “will con­tinue to be re­spect­ful of the wide va­ri­ety of viewpoints in this coun­try.”

Then, in an in­ter­view pub­lished Wed­nes­day night, Stephen­son spoke with the As­so­ci­ated Press, say­ing the Boy Scouts or­ga­ni­za­tion “an­tic­i­pated” that the speech could get po­lit­i­cal and that some peo­ple could get up­set. While he said, “Do I wish the pres­i­dent hadn’t gone there and hadn’t been po­lit­i­cal? Of course,” the ar­ti­cle did not quote him ex­press­ing con­cern over whether the speech re­flected Scout values or vi­o­lated the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s rules on po­lit­i­cal mat­ters. “We are not go­ing to cen­sor or edit the pres­i­dent of the United States,” he said. The let­ter from Sur­baugh that in­cluded the apol­ogy was posted Thurs­day.

Ex­perts were some­what di­vided on whether Stephen­son and Sur­baugh should have more di­rectly de­nounced the con­tent of the pres­i­dent’s speech.

“While there’s an ar­gu­ment for stand­ing up for the values of the or­ga­ni­za­tion, there’s also an ar­gu­ment that do­ing so would have made mat­ters worse,” said Bruce Haynes, founder of the bi­par­ti­san cor­po­rate rep­u­ta­tion firm Pur­ple Strate­gies, who has a 16-year-old son who is a Scout. “It could feel to peo­ple like they were choos­ing sides, which is ex­actly what they say they don’t want to do.”

He also pointed out that as the vol­un­teer “na­tional pres­i­dent,” Stephen­son’s role is like the chair­man of the board, whereas Sur­baugh is more like the CEO or pro­fes­sional man­ager of the or­ga­ni­za­tion, and the or­ga­ni­za­tion is less top-down than bot­tom-up, with more than 270 lo­cal coun­cils. As a non­profit, they may not have the re­sources of a big cor­po­rate brand. “There’s no war room,” he said. “There’s no pha­lanxes of PR firms.”

Oth­ers said the Scouts missed a chance to show lead­er­ship.

“This is not about them be­ing Repub­li­can or Demo­crat,” said An­thony Johndrow, who leads a rep­u­ta­tion ad­vi­sory firm. “This is about whether or not a guest speaker demon­strated their values — or the an­tithe­sis of it.”

Be­cause the Boy Scouts have such a well-known Scout Oath and Scout Law, he said, the lead­ers should be pre­pared to speak up when some­one vi­o­lates it.

“They have it lam­i­nated on badges and stuff,” he said of the group’s values, which call for Scouts to be “morally straight” and live by char­ac­ter traits such as be­ing “kind” and “rev­er­ent.”

“This should not have dinged their rep­u­ta­tion. This should have been an op­por­tu­nity to strengthen it,” he said.

Ef­fec­tive mea cul­pas, said Gabrielle Adams, a pro­fes­sor at the Lon­don Busi­ness School who stud­ies lead­er­ship, in­clude some­thing like, “I un­der­stand that what I did was wrong and prom­ise it won’t hap­pen again,” she said. “If peo­ple feel wronged, this won’t go far enough.”

While the Scouts’ sit­u­a­tion is ex­tra­or­di­nary — it’s hard to prom­ise that a pres­i­dent won’t go off­script again — they could have inched to­ward such a state­ment.

“They could have said, ‘We will be­gin im­me­di­ately look­ing at ways in which we can min­i­mize the risk of this hap­pen­ing in the fu­ture,’ ” Far­rell said. "

The Boy Scouts’ di­rec­tor of na­tional com­mu­ni­ca­tions, Effie De­li­markos, said in an in­ter­view that the phys­i­cal con­straints and lo­gis­tics of be­ing on-site at the Jam­boree in West Vir­ginia played a role in the tim­ing of its re­sponse, as did want­ing to re­ceive in­put on its re­sponse from coun­cils across the county.

De­li­markos said Sur­baugh’s let­ter high­lighted Scout values and other events from the Jam­boree. She also noted that “we apol­o­gized for what we could apol­o­gize for — we couldn’t con­trol what the pres­i­dent said.”

In a Trump pres­i­dency, Far­rell said, plenty of other or­ga­ni­za­tions will need to re­mem­ber the in­her­ent risks that come with this pres­i­dent as a speaker: “Any or­ga­ni­za­tion that’s go­ing to have Trump come speak needs to look at this.”


AT&T chief ex­ec­u­tive Ran­dall Stephen­son, left, also the Boy Scouts’ na­tional pres­i­dent, ad­dresses Pres­i­dent Trump in June.

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