Learning Crisis Communications from the Boy Scouts of America

The Boy Scouts of America finds itself in a kerfuffle with its proposed membership standards document. In a nutshell, the BSA is wrestling with dropping its ban on gay membership and in the process has created for itself an organizational communications nightmare that is bludgeoning a century of branding equity. It will take more than a compass for the BSA to navigate this crisis communications firestorm.

Photo courtesy of www.FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Photo courtesy of www.FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The BSA is in a five-alarm crisis communications nightmare. Very little is coming from its national headquarters in Irving, Texas, that positively positions the BSA. In fact, the organization’s leadership finds itself with few – if any – friends on either side of the debate, and has landed itself in a crossfire. Make no mistake; this is a self-inflicted crisis.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I am a former Boy Scout and earned Eagle Scout in 1980. For the purposes of this blog post I’m commenting objectively on the debacle Boy Scouts of America has made of the way it has communicated the issue and the strategy it should employ moving forward.

I obviously have no “insider information” so I have no idea what discussions were had with corporate communicators or PR consultants. However, there are some conclusions that can be drawn from what has transpired. So, what are the biggest communications blunders I believe the BSA made from an organizational communication perspective? There are several; here’s two.

1. Its communication lacked/lacks assertiveness and direction, and organizational messaging that doesn’t confidently guide employees or members creates confusion. Ultimately, confidence in leadership is undermined and a lack of confidence in leadership and the organization damages brand equity.

2. It lacked crisis preparedness. The Boy Scout motto is, “Be Prepared,” but  the lack of meaningful communication and failure to confidently and publicly position itself showed it didn’t fully consider worst case scenarios. As a result, the little communication being produced appears reactive and does very little to instill confidence. Harried communication leads people to believe they’re not getting the true story.

So, damage done. The BSA can’t climb into the Way Back Machine and do it all over again, but what can it do going forward and what can your organization learn from it?

1. Clarify messaging. Why is the BSA considering this course of action and why now? Tell us! Being reactive, the BSA is scattered in explaining its actions. Clear, concise, on-point messages need to be developed and practiced. I address readiness to speak in What you say impacts branding and Media training: Four things leaders can learn from David Stern. You must know what needs to be said.

2. Don’t hide leadership. This is the most critical point in the BSA’s history. To say the future of the organization is riding on its ability to respond to this situation is not an overestimation. Now is the time for leadership to lead, and now is the time for leadership to be seen and heard from – often. This means internally and externally. Clarify the message, prepare speakers and get them on Sunday news shows, quoted in the paper, appearing on cable news, etc. If your leaders don’t drive the message, the organization looks reactive and wishy-washy. Communicators need to prepare leaders. (I discuss this in Five media relations tips for when reporters call.)

3. Monitor social media…please! There is a great conversation on this topic taking place through social media and virtually 100 percent of it is without any response from  the Boy Scouts. Check its Twitter feed and you’ll see all “push” Tweets and no engagement. Same with its Facebook page. The BSA is ignoring, or is paralyzed by, the very platforms that could help it assert its messaging, infuse leadership and participate in the conversation. I cover the “how-to” in, Is your social media marketer prepared to handle a crisis? If you aren’t monitoring and participating in social media you are a crisis waiting to happen.

4. Prepare for the outcome. There is the strong probability that in May the BSA will announce it is lifting the ban. The second front to the crisis is coming. Deciding now – in February and March – how to manage the reaction is absolutely critical. The BSA needs to develop a proactive strategy that amounts to a media blitz to shape the future identity of Boy Scouts. This should fall in the larger context of branding – and this initiative should be seen as nothing less than the heavy lifting it takes to rebrand an organization. Failure to develop a plan to move forward ensures more brand damage.

Any organization that decides to compromise a core value can expect a strong reaction by interested stake holders. Failure to grasp that certainty and prepare a communication strategy that navigates rough waters ensures heavy brand damage. The Boy Scouts’ leadership should have checked its handbook because they ignored one significant piece of historic advice and that you’d be wise to grasp: Be Prepared.

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