ANALYSIS: Augusta offers lessons on how not to handle diversity

The media spotlight on Augusta's membership policy is intensifying. The club can still get out of the rough, but not with the tactics it has used thus far.

The media spotlight on Augusta's membership policy is intensifying. The club can still get out of the rough, but not with the tactics it has used thus far.

The Masters is coming up next month at Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia, and the crowds are already hitting town. Crowds of protesters, that is. Even the least golf-savvy among us has heard by now that Martha Burk, head of the National Council of Women's Organizations, is waging a highly public campaign against Augusta's male-only membership history. She'll be out in front of the club with a few friends. Activist extraordinaire Jesse Jackson also plans to stop by with his Rainbow/PUSH coalition to bolster her bid for equal access to the locker rooms. In the opposite corner of this broadcast-worthy battle is a one-man splinter group of the Ku Klux Klan showing up in support of Augusta. In between are town members holding BBQ events, radio personalities airing their opinions, and even a couple of protesters protesting protests. It almost makes golf worth watching. At the center of this maelstrom of messaging is Augusta's chairman and public face, Hootie Johnson. Whether or not you agree with his position, Johnson has shown an iron will in his steadfast determination to argue the issue out in public. He has never attempted to keep the Augusta controversy out of the press. In fact, he's been more successful at engaging media interest in the topic than Burk could have ever dreamed of being. He has doggedly and vocally stuck by his view that Augusta's membership policies are just fine, and nobody's business but the members' themselves. He's charming in a "just let me talk to the cameras - they'll understand" way, but it's not a persuasive method of PR. But it does provide an excellent how-not-to example for handling diversity PR issues. Johnson may be in a heap of trouble on the feminist front, but he certainly doesn't have an indefensible position. He just acts like he does, huffing and puffing and trying to blow Burk down. There is a reasonable argument to be made that private clubs can exclude whoever they choose. Johnson himself has said, "There may come a day when women are invited to join our club." Cut him off there, keep him out of live interviews, and you have a starting point for a sound PR strategy. Combine that foundation with other aspects of the organization's heritage, and you may even have a way to come out on top of the situation. Augusta, for instance, has an excellent record of charitable activities (millions of dollars in contributions each year) and a rich tradition of economically supporting the local community. The club even took the step of admitting a black member in 1990. Positioned carefully, those are positive details that could support the club's image as old-fashioned, but not a bad bunch of guys. But at almost every step, Johnson's rhetoric has come across as dismissive of the issue of equality, hostile of Burk's position, and baffled at the hoopla. And Johnson's ban on allowing anyone else to speak on the matter (he even sent a rebuking letter to Georgia's governor, chastising him for his remarks) has prevented any third-party endorsements that could lend credibility to his position. Currently, one of the only non-Hootie quotes supporting Augusta in the media have come from a splinter group of the KKK. Off to a bad start Johnson himself started the controversy by responding to a letter from Burk with an angry and lengthy press release, promising not to be coerced into changing membership policies, even "at the point of a bayonet." Even Burk has expressed surprise at the over-the-top response. Since then, 1,523 articles have been written about the controversy, according to a Factiva search for "Augusta National" and "protest." Almost certainly, most of those could have been avoided with a simple, polite response to Burk along the lines of, "We'll think about it." It's an instance where sensitivity and insight could have diffused the situation, and where a strict, mainstream outlook bumped it to a crisis level. Augusta is losing supporters because Johnson is painting himself as an inflexible extremist - and the press is loving it. It's entertaining to hear him struggle to disassociate the issues of racial and gender equality as he's grilled about the club's diversity. And it's media manna to see Jesse Jackson square off with the KKK on TV. But it's not so good for Augusta. Even those not eager to support feminist causes have admitted that Burk has come across as presenting the more rational and well-founded argument. "The public needs to be aware that this is not just about one person and one golf club," Burk recently explained to the Fort-Worth Star Telegram. "The Masters is a public event. It is broadcast over the public airwaves. It rakes in millions of public dollars. And that is what makes this club different than one that claims to be just a few guys playing the back nine. If Augusta wants to be a private club, it needs to act like a private club." But Augusta has never been just a private club. Its impressive membership list keeps it from being dependent on Masters' revenues, a point that has been both a strength and a weakness for the club. Unlike the organizers of other sporting tournaments, the club has been more interested in maintaining control of its image as a bastion of tradition and history than in making money. To that end, it has an unusual agreement with CBS that allows it to directly choose and manage the tournament's sponsors, and severely limits their exposure at the tournament as well as their advertising. Only three companies have the privilege of being associated with golf's grandest event during the broadcast: IBM, Coca-Cola, and Citigroup. But this year, citing pressure on those corporate allies by Burk's forces, Johnson dropped all sponsorship of the event. It will now be the only network sporting event to run entirely commercial-free. The ability to do that gives Johnson the freedom to maintain his position, but clearly a few checks and balances might be of benefit to the organization. There's no doubt that the decision will hurt the bottom line, no matter how much the organizations reaps in dues - but it has other repercussions as well. The threat to corporations The club's C-suite members themselves are getting nervous. Burk escalated her campaign with a website (www.augusta-discriminates.com) that lists Augusta's previously secret membership, along with their corporate affiliations - corporate affiliations that may even pick up the membership tab. Media covered the list extensively. In this environment of Enron-inspired suspicion of business executives, no CEO needs to be a card-carrying member of a discriminatory organization. Sheltered in the clubhouse, Johnson can ignore the damage piling up at the gates. But the trouble is there - and not just with women. An aging Caucasian man speaking contemptuously of gender issues is never a winning strategy with any audience that has ever felt marginalized. At best, Johnson's current course will leave the club with the image of being unfriendly toward women. At worst, it may portray Augusta as a misogynistic confederacy of elitists whose policies are out of whack. The handling of this face-off is a defining moment for Augusta's public legacy - a legacy Johnson clearly cares about deeply. He still has time to consider what messages could get him and Augusta National out of trouble, but he needs to remember that there are no mulligans in PR.

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