Be prepared, even for a Trump-boree
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.