Northern Virginia-based Shirley & Banister Public Affairs has worked with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty since 2012, recently providing media support for Hobby Lobby’s opposition of the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate that went all the way to the Supreme Court. At the end of June, the Supreme Court ruled that family-owned businesses cannot be forced under the AFA to provide employees with certain types of contraceptives due to a federal law that protects religious freedom.
Hobby Lobby worked with agencies Shirley & Banister, longtime partner Saxum, and Lumentus on communications for the case, as well as the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty’s comms team.
Diana Banister, partner and VP, talks with PRWeek about the communications strategies behind the controversial case.
How did you prepare attorneys for media interviews regarding the Hobby Lobby case?
We kept the focus on the merits of the case and why this was important for the country and for reaffirming the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. What we did with Becket Fund – and we were brought on by Hobby Lobby, as well, to help them with communications – was focus it on the lawyers answering the questions because the Green family [plaintiff and owner of Hobby Lobby] is a very private family, and wanted to keep it that way.
What were some of the biggest challenges in communicating your message?
It was a lot of information and we were trying to make it into a concise, capsulated sound bite that people could understand. Unfortunately, there’s still a lot of misinformation about it, but we tried to correct that in op-eds we placed, and we kind of built a coalition around the case, as well.
A lot of information was about trying to take contraceptives away from women, which was totally not the issue that was involved in this case. This is about religious liberty and owners of a company not paying for something they had a religious reason and moral foundation for opposing.
It was more of an education campaign, as much as anything, to help people understand why this was an important issue and why it was going all the way to the Supreme Court.
What part of the misinformation did you see as having an impact in the media that you wanted to change?
[The case] had nothing to do with contraceptives. It had to do with [the Green’s] religious liberty. As a company, and founded on the premises that they founded the company, they have the right under our constitution, and under RFRA, to hold these personal views and these religious views and to run their company accordingly. That was really the focus and what we were trying to communicate in the reasoning for this going forward.
The other side wanted to make it all about women’s rights and women’s health, which really was not the case here at all, and going forward, that’s what we had to communicate and continue, over and over, because the other side wanted to try to make it about something it wasn’t.
What was the backlash from the case, and how did you deal with it?
Even after the case was decided, there have been protests at Hobby Lobby stores and there were people doing horrible things inside the stores. People today feel they can express their opinions wherever and whenever, and that’s also a First Amendment right, and we have a lot of different ways they can do that.
What we tried to do was continue to focus on our message and not be distracted by attacks or protests or what people have said about the Green family or others involved in the case but focus on what it was what we were doing.
We presented our own message through various means. We had a case website and the Becket Fund had a website. We tried to focus it on simple talking points, as to what the case was about and why it was important.
If there were egregious attacks, we’d take them on a case-by-case basis, and also with media requests. We monitored social media every day and the team in New York would send out a report every morning of what had happened in the media, so we could all take a look and decide whether we should respond.
What was your crisis communications strategy?
We take it on a case-by-case basis. There was a small group of our communications team who would come together in a crisis to discuss an issue at the drop of a hat if they saw something happen. It’s important not to take on an attack that has no merit. We didn’t feel it was necessary to take on some of these attacks because they simply had no basis in fact.
How did you prepare in-house to take on a controversial client?
We’re no stranger to controversy at our firm. We only take on clients who we have a fundamental agreement with, and whose work we strongly believe in. Doing that with the Becket Fund, and really feeling that we are an extension of them, knowing that we’re all in this battle together, whatever may come, I think reassures everyone here.
Of course, we have to prepare ourselves in case we’re attacked, but it’s bigger and broader than that. As a firm, we talk about what could happen, but we all know when we come to this firm that we might get involved with some kind of controversy. It’s part of doing business in the political area.
This story was updated on August 4 to note other communications firms and organizations that worked on comms for Hobby Lobby during the case and its aftermath.