3 PR lessons from scouting groups’ war of words

The Boy Scouts will start accepting girls as members, the group has decided, much to the chagrin of the Girl Scouts. The subsequent biting rhetoric offers takeaways for communicators.

It’s “he said, she said” on a national scale.

News broke Wednesday that the Boy Scouts of America would open their ranks to girls, allowing female scouts to achieve the group’s highest honor: Eagle Scout.

The Boy Scouts say they’re working to better serve families.

The Girl Scouts say its male counterparts are making a desperate play to bolster membership.

NBC News reported:

“We believe it is critical to evolve how our programs meet the needs of families interested in positive and lifelong experiences for their children,” said Michael Surbaugh, chief executive of the Boy Scouts.

Starting next year, young girls can join Cub Scout units, known as dens. Local scouting organizations can choose to have dens for girls and dens for boys. “Cub Scout dens will be single-gender — all boys or all girls,” the organization said in a statement.

The Boy Scouts say the move was motivated by requests from families and parents who wanted to enroll their daughters in scouting programs.

In a press release on its website, BSA wrote:

Families today are busier and more diverse than ever. Most are dual-earners and there are more single-parent households than ever before [1], making convenient programs that serve the whole family more appealing. Additionally, many groups currently underserved by Scouting, including the Hispanic and Asian communities, prefer to participate in activities as a family. Recent surveys [2] of parents not involved with Scouting showed high interest in getting their daughters signed up for programs like Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts, with 90 percent expressing interest in a program like Cub Scouts and 87 percent expressing interest in a program like Boy Scouts. Education experts also evaluated the curriculum and content and confirmed relevancy of the program for young women.

(The bracketed numbers refer to footnotes. More on that questionable tactic later.)

The news comes only two months after the Girl Scouts of America wrote a letter accusing the BSA of deliberately undercutting the GSA brand and membership base.

BuzzFeed reported:

The letter suggested that BSA was using the proposed girls programs as a way to bolster their “declining membership.”

“Rather than seeking to fundamentally transform BSA into a co-ed program, we believe strongly that Boy Scouts should instead take steps to ensure that they are expanding the scope of their programming to all boys, including those who BSA has historically underserved and underrepresented, such as African American and Latino boys,” [Kathy Hopinkah Hannan, GSUSA’s national president] wrote.

The news is exciting to some young women. One vocal activist who pushed the BSA to open its ranks is Sydney Ireland, an avid scout from Manhattan.

For a profile with WNYC in April she said:

“I just want to see a change,” she said. “Right now they’re discriminating against girls, and I’m just calling it as it is.”

Now the BSA is changing, and not everyone is happy about it.

The Boy Scouts used the International Day of the Girl to promote the decision as a step toward greater equality and inclusion.

The Girl Scouts are not happy about the development.

The Girl Scouts didn’t mince words in assessing the BSA. ABC News reported:

“The Boy Scouts’ house is on fire,” Girl Scouts told ABC News in a statement today. “Instead of addressing systemic issues of continuing sexual assault, financial mismanagement and deficient programming, BSA’s senior management wants to add an accelerant to the house fire by recruiting girls.”

Here are three takeaways for communicators:

1. Focus on individuals’ stories. In explaining its decision, the BSA pointed to requests from families to allow girls to join the Scouts as a pivotal factor. By sharing the story of Ireland—the young woman who lobbied to join the Boy Scouts—the BSA gave a face to the problem it was addressing and kept the discussion from veering into theoretical ideas about gender. Ireland’s push offers a far better rationale than a data set or educational study might.

2. No one is reading the footnotes. The BSA used footnotes in its press release to cite scientific studies involved in the decision. The studies were important, given that the Girl Scouts and others alleged the BSA was recklessly creating a scouting experience for girls with nopreparation or foresight. However, few news stories included those studies. They weren’t read or shared by reporters—probably because they were buried in footnotes. If supportive information is crucial, provide a visualization that journalists can use in their reporting.

3. Partner with organizations to smooth over rocky transitions. The BSA didn’t come to this decision in a vacuum, but its announcement seems to have caught many by surprise. Despite the Girl Scouts’ opposition, the BSA knew of other organizations that might have applauded the move. For example, the National Organization for Women could have been a valuable strategic partner; instead, NOW issued only tepid support.

CNN wrote:

The National Organization for Women had a mixed response to the Boy Scouts’ announcement. “I think it’s a good thing in that the Boy Scouts have a long history of discrimination and they are taking action,” NOW President Toni Van Pelt said. “The devil is in the details and we need to wait and see how this plays out.”

How would you have launched this campaign, PRDaily readers?

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