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 website that referenced 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 the Affordable Care Act’s repeal didn’t get the votes, and called the nation’s capital a “cesspool” — was met with more controversy and sharp division. After the letter was posted on Facebook, many people who commented 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 an unprecedented minefield: a diverse membership base, a social media firestorm of angry parents and an unscripted, ego-fueled president. But more and more, communications experts say, the playbook for managing such crises is less and 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 the Boy Scouts handled the fallout from Trump’s speech. Over the course of 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, one by one, as the furor over the event and the Boy Scouts’ response to it seemed to grow. Not long after the speech on Monday, the organization put out a brief statement that said it was “wholly non-partisan” and it has long been a tradition to invite sitting presidents. An expanded statement on 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 that the Boy Scouts organization “anticipated” 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 to going to censor or edit the president of the United States,” he said. The letter from Surbaugh that included the apology was then posted on Thursday.
Though most agreed that a response like that letter should have come much sooner, communications experts were somewhat divided on whether Stephenson and Surbaugh should have more directly denounced the content of the president’s speech.
Some thought doing so — even if it wasn’t meant as passing judgment on the president — would only be interpreted that way. “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 background in GOP consulting and a 16-year old son who is a Scout. “It could feel to many people like they were choosing sides, which is exactly what they say they don’t want to do.”
He also pointed to the nature of the Boy Scouts’ organization and leadership as playing a role in a delayed response. As the volunteer “national president,” Stephenson’s role is like the chairman of the board, whereas Surbaugh is more like the chief executive or professional manager of the organization, and the organization is less top-down than bottoms-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.”
But others said the Scouts should have seen the problem coming and that it missed a big opportunity to show leadership.
“This is not about them being Republican or Democrat,” said Anthony Johndrow, who heads up a New York-based 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 particularly prepared to speak up when someone violates it — especially given that Stephenson said the political nature of Trump’s speech was anticipated.
“They have it laminated on badges and stuff,” he said of the organization’s values, which call for Scouts to be “morally straight” and live by such character traits as being “courteous,” “kind” and “reverent.”
“This should not have dinged their reputation. This should have been an opportunity to strengthen it,” he said, noting there was a way to more explicitly say how Trump’s speech and Boy Scouts’ values did not connect, “without it being an attack on the president.”
Others questioned why Surbaugh’s letter — which some noted apologized to those who were offended, rather than for a specific action — did not include an essential ingredient. Effective mea culpas, says Gabrielle Adams, a professor at the London Business School who studies leadership and apologies, include something like, “I understand that what I did was wrong and promise it won’t happen again,” she said. “If people actually 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 off-script again — they could have at least 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. “It indicates that not only is it wrong, but it’s wrong enough that this isn’t going to happen again.”
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 their response, as did wanting to receive input from councils across the county to their response. “It was important to be able to hear what our Scouting family had to say before making a decision on the reaction,” she said.
In response to a question about whether its leaders might have more directly called out problems with the president’s speech, she said Surbaugh’s letter did highlight some Scout values and other events from the Jamboree. But it was “also about our organization moving forward. It was not about having the president’s remarks and one moment in time define the narrative.”
She also noted that “we apologized for what we could apologize for — we couldn’t control what the president said.”
The Boy Scouts probably won’t be the only organization assessing what happened earlier this week. Amid 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.”