Under fire following its decision to bar gay leaders from its ranks, the Boy Scouts of America has stuck to its ideals, keeping a majority of its support from the press and the public.
Whether you agree or disagree with the Boy Scouts of America (BSA), you don't need a compass to find where the organization stands.
During the court fight to bar out-of-the-closet homosexuals from its leadership, the 92-year-old youth organization took a thrashing from liberal activists, including scouting splinter groups. It lost a few high-profile corporate donors and got evicted from some public meeting places. A Newsweek poll, however, showed that 56% of Americans supported the US Supreme Court's 2000 decision upholding the BSA's policy, and the majority of editorials supported its position.
"It was clear to us we were dealing with an issue that was larger than the BSA, recalls Stephen Medlicott, the BSA's division director of marketing and communications. "We wanted to communicate our values and beliefs.
We feel we were able to do that, and we tried not to engage in endless debates."
Comms rethink leads changes at the top
Since then, the BSA has reorganized headquarters functions, including communications. But Willie Iles, group director of endowment and strategic initiatives since March, doesn't think the BSA would handle any of its past crises differently today.
A 31-year scouting veteran, Iles moved to the BSA's national headquarters from Atlanta, where he served as deputy regional director for a 13-state territory. His new job gives him responsibility for media relations, crisis and internal comms, advertising, marketing and national meetings. Iles also oversees finance, or fundraising - things like "heritage events at which will bequests are sought from supporters.
Also on Iles' plate is the Scoutreach program, which focuses on building membership among underrepresented demographic groups, such as minority youth and those who live in inner cities or rural areas. Scoutreach launched an initiative this year to establish clubs in African Methodist Episcopal churches. PSAs and other materials derived from Bromley/MS&L's Hispanic pilot also have been compiled in a kit for BSA councils, Medlicott notes (PRWeek, November 19, 2001).
The BSA relies heavily on outside PR help from the Dallas offices of both Edelman and Burson-Marsteller. The organization signed up Edelman a few years after moving its national headquarters from New Jersey to Texas in 1979, and senior account supervisor Gregg Shields serves as the organization's primary external spokesman.
"I really consider myself one of the staff, says Shields. New scout executives at the organization's 310 local councils spend a half-day with Shields learning how to be local spokespeople, and he keeps his cell phone on to take their calls day or night.
Reporters sometimes scratch their heads, however. While they give the BSA decent marks on some aspects of media relations, they voice frustration at a lack of access to top leaders, which include a volunteer president and board, in addition to a paid professional staff. "Gregg is very good at what he does, is knowledgeable, and speaks in very cogent sound bites, says one journalist. "But he's not a decision maker."
While Edelman concerns itself with crisis communications and issues management, Burson works on branding and touts scouts' good deeds. Leading the account is Keith Stephens, who was assigned to the BSA account at Edelman and went on the group's payroll for a while before moving to Burson.
Public perception of the BSA
Last year, Burson's Chicago office undertook a brand survey for the BSA.
Focus groups in several cities identified the Boy Scouts with exploration, with joint parent/child decision making, and as a nonsports avenue for building self-esteem, Stephens says. The exercise didn't produce a new tagline, but survey results were shared with local councils in April. Stephens summarizes one overarching sentiment as, "The Boy Scouts is more than something I do, it's something I am."
Burson also finds and publicizes heartwarming stories from local councils that go beyond helping little old ladies cross the street. Medlicott describes the BSA's internal communication mission as providing materials and support to these quite autonomous local organizations.
Individual scout troops report to councils that may oversee single cities or several counties. "Chartering organizations operate the troops, usually as part of their youth outreach programs. Schools, fraternal societies, and civic groups sponsor scouting, and churches frequently charter troops.
While the national organization decrees some rules and standardizes things like badge earning, chartering organizations can integrate scouting into their own religious or social service programs.
Large staffs, like the 44-member crew in New York City, are rare. While someone at each council takes responsibility for communication, only 20 or so employ marketing or PR pros. Volunteer marketing committees often help, but reporters who deal with local councils say results can be spotty.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints adopted scouting as its official youth program for boys, and Mormons make up more than 10% of the BSA's more than 5 million scouts and volunteers. Scouting is a big deal in Provo, UT, and the Utah National Parks Council employs a media relations specialist. But reporter Rodger Hardy, who covers the council for the church-owned Deseret News, says the staff doesn't seem to understand news. "They're responsive when I need information, but they don't give me very good tips, says Hardy.
The degree to which Mormons and other religious supporters influenced the homosexuality issue is a matter of some debate both inside and outside of the Boy Scouts. "The BSA is absolutely a training ground for political leadership, and has now been adopted as a poster organization for the religious right, claims one gay Eagle Scout.
Divided on controversial issue
The BSA's legal and PR arguments went something like this: In the Scout Oath, a boy pledges "I will do my duty to God and my country. The BSA interprets "the teaching of the world's great religions as confining sex to the marriage beds of heterosexual couples, according to the "In Support of Values section of its website. The BSA successfully argued in court that as a private organization, it has the right to set membership and leadership standards reflecting its own values. Some might argue, however, that the BSA's status as a congressionally chartered organization and the government funding some of its programs enjoy inject a dose of ambiguity into that line of reasoning.
While the national organization took a strong stand, some observers say the homosexuality issue encountered more debate and ambivalence among rank-and-file members and volunteers. Eugene Sonn, an NPR reporter in Trenton, NJ who also volunteers with a local troop, says, "The leadership structure had its position, but I didn't necessarily get a sense that it was from taking a poll of everybody involved in scouting."
Regardless of its volatility, the legal rumble didn't significantly lighten the BSA's pockets or shorten its membership lists, as some predicted.
"We enjoy setting the record straight with a smile on our face, says Iles, noting membership and revenues rose overall in 2001. "We try to practice what we teach, and we took the high road. We're not looking back, we're looking forward."
Boy Scouts of America
Group director of endowment and strategic initiatives: Willie Iles.
Reports to assistant chief scout executive David Ross, who reports to chief scout executive Roy Williams. Supervises marketing, comms, national events, finance, and Scoutreach
Division director of marketing and comms: Stephen Medlicott
Associate directors: Pat Wellen (research), Michael Ramsey (speech-writing, internal comms, marketing planning); Renee Fairrer (media relations, advertising); Brandi Mantz (internal comms, marketing, budgeting)
Group director of relationship/publishing: Carey Keane
Publisher of Boys' Life and Scouting magazines: Warren Young
Division director of custom comms (in-house creative team): Jim Wilson
Division director, finance: Walt Weaver
Total in-house endowment and strategic initiatives staff - 38
Outside firms: Edelman handles issues and crisis management and is BSA's primary press contact; Burson-Marsteller does branding work and pitches grassroots features. A number of other firms do more limited work for the BSA
2001 program marketing expenses: $6.2 million. Fundraising expenses $96,000 (from 2001 annual report).