RFRA, chestnut horses and horse chestnuts

 

By coincidence, I was at a national convention of newspaper columnists just a few days before Gov. Mike Pence announced Indiana had cancelled its deal with an out-of-state public relations firm hired to repair the state's battered image.

The state had hired Porter Novelli to clean up the mess left by Pence's maladroit handling of the needless debate over the Religious Freedom Restoration Act – a mean-spirited "solution" in desperate search of a problem if there ever was one.

"Given the record-setting pace of job creation by businesses across Indiana, Gov. Pence supports the decision by the IEDC (Indiana Economic Development Corpration) to conclude the contract with Porter Novelli and continue current efforts to promote the advantages of doing business and creating jobs in our state," said Kara Brooks, Pence's press secretary.

That statement demonstrates once again that denial isn't just a river in Africa.

The annual convention of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists – which took place just a few blocks from the Statehouse the weekend before Pence pulled the plug on Porter Novelli – would have been a prime opportunity for the state to sell itself.

There were a couple of problems, though.

The convention's organizers reported that attendance for the columnists' convention was down to about half of previous years. Many potential attendees said they wouldn't come to Indiana because of RFRA.

And the relative few who did attend heard Indiana business leaders tell them there was no question the wounds generated by RFRA were real and deep. The only question that remains is how long those wounds will last.

That echoes evidence from other quarters.

Many states put in place orders of no travel to Indiana while Hoosiers were at the height of the RFRA debacle. Several have been slow to rescind them.

Some of that can be attributed to stands taken on principle. Some also is a result of our state officials' tendency to try to make themselves look better by belittling the policies of other states. When those other states had a chance to respond in kind – well, you know what they say about payback.

The Pence administration acknowledged as much by the way it announced the cancellation of the Porter Novelli contract.

Public relations and political professionals know that the best way to get pop from good news is to break it ahead of the news cycle with fanfare and tailor-made visuals. The way to dump embarrassing news overboard is by releasing a statement just before the weekend starts – and it's even better if you can throw garbage over the rail when people are racing away for a holiday weekend.

The news that Indiana had severed ties with Porter Novelli came right as Americans prepared to celebrate the Fourth of July.

Belated as it was, the governor made the right decision for the wrong reasons to get rid of Porter Novelli.

The problem with agreeing to drop $2 million on an out-of-state public relations firm was that it both was too much and too little.

Spending that much money on damage control was bound to generate criticism of state officials – the governor included – who have preached austerity at different times to everyone from school teachers to police officers to victims of domestic violence.

And the reality is that no amount of money was likely to do what Pence wanted done. Communications professionals can't sell a message that doesn't exist.

As Abraham Lincoln once suggested, you can try to tell people that a chestnut horse and a horse chestnut are the same thing, but most of them are going to know the difference when they see it and smell it.

As long as we Hoosiers are going to debate whether it is okay for some people to discriminate against others in the public sphere, we're going to have a problem. The only way we really fix the problem is by saying such discrimination is unacceptable.

Period.

Otherwise, we're left in the position of trying to tell people from other parts of the country and world that what they're really seeing – and smelling – is a chestnut horse.

Most of them are going to trust their own eyes and noses.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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