“Heavens no,” said a tired, yet defiant Governor Mike Pence when asked by a reporter if he anticipated the backlash from Indiana’s recently enacted religious freedom law. The honest remark from the polished conservative captured the feelings of a man whose life has been turned upside down in the past week. Plainly dedicated to improving Indiana’s economy, and posturing for a possible 2016 presidential run, Pence now bears the burden of having inadvertently sunk two feet deep into the latest culture war. Since signing the state’s Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (SB 101) on Thursday, March 26, Pence has involuntarily been swept up into a viral wave. His communication efforts since then have both added fuel to the fire and helped control damage. What follows is a timeline of major events since SB 101’s passage, and how Pence has handled the crisis so far.
- March 26: Signing Ceremony and Initial Press Conference
Pence signs SB 101 in his office while flanked by a group of religious leaders, ranging from Franciscan monks to Orthodox Jews. A savvy move that shows respect for diversity and demonstrates that the law serves all people of faith. However, photos of the ceremony show three of the state’s most vocal opponents of same-sex marriage standing closest to the governor. No media is allowed in the signing ceremony, leading suspicion of the bill’s true intentions to boil over. Business leaders start to decry it, prompting Pence and his team to quickly hold a press conference where the governor makes sure to emphasize Indiana’s recent record of economic growth and asserts that the bill is “not about discrimination.” Pence comes off as defensive and dismissive, sarcastically responding to a reporter asking about SB 101’s connection to gay marriage just recently being allowed in the state, “It’s a nice try. I like the way you kind of connect the dots.” Though he gets points for effort, Pence’s attitude on March 26 accelerated the cycle of negative press about to hit him.
- March 29: Pence Interviewed by George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s “This Week”
The governor appears on a national news program in an attempt to allay concerns over the law coming from around the country. Stephanopoulos puts the pressure on from the start, but Pence retains his composure. But when Pence refuses to answer if SB 101 would allow a florist to refuse service to a homosexual wedding with a yes or no, Stephanopoulos digs in and Pence starts straddling the line between confident and defensive. The real blunder here is when Pence says he will neither seek changes to the law nor add LGBT citizens to existing state laws that protect groups from discrimination. The latter comment adds to the perception that Pence and/or Indiana is anti-LGBT, while the former statement will put him in hot water with his socially conservative allies when he later states that he will seek a fix for the law.
- March 31: Pence Calls for Legislative Fix
After a certified firestorm of media criticism and a bevy of large companies threatening to pull investments out of Indiana, Pence announces that he will work with legislators to make sure SB 101 does not allow businesses to deny services to anyone. He argues that the fix is needed to remedy the “perception problem” that has now engulfed his state. Taking aim at left-leaning media, he says the mischaracterization of the law has been due to “sloppy reporting.” Deftly, he then states, “I believe in my heart of hearts that no one should be discriminated against because of who they are, who they love, or what they believe.” This quote paints a comprehensive portrait of a man who isn’t hateful, but also thinks that individuals’ religious beliefs should be respected. This announcement represents Pence’s best PR move yet. Although he opens himself to criticism of backing down in the face of media scrutiny, he is able to convey that the suggested fix is really about helping Indiana, all while shifting blame to overzealous reporters and making a definitive, strong statement about his personal beliefs.
One thing is for sure: Mike Pence and his communications team have been through the ringer. Though they started off on shaky ground, they appear to be moving forward with more effective messaging. Yet, it remains to be seen how Pence ultimately comes out of this. Next week, we will examine further developments in this salient study in crisis communication.
Continue reading part II here.