The statehouse could have voted down the bill. But even sincere government bodies do inane things, and in this case it seems nobody considered or cared how the nation, news media, business community and the state’s own Congressional delegation might react to a stupendously injudicious piece of legislation.
Governor Brewer could have ended it by immediately announcing her intent to veto the bill. That would have made the whole mess a relatively short national news event. Instead she made things worse by representing the bill as something to be seriously considered, as if she might actually find justification for government-sanctioned discrimination.
That she finally vetoed it doesn’t help much. Arizona’s damaged reputation won’t be easily mollified, as most people assume the governor both gave legs to the bill and then vetoed it for political reasons. It’s going to be a while before potential new employers stop considering what other nasty legislation might emerge from that statehouse.
Faced with a similar situation, how could any elected leader stop the PR disaster? An effective communications strategy would begin by emphasizing principals on which almost everyone agrees. This public consensus would be the basis to quickly and decisively reject any policy that would institutionalize a reversal of those principals, and even worse motivate similar attempts down the road.
Using this strategy, with added emphasis on expressing affinity with the good reasons behind the bad bill, a leader might reframe the public dialogue with strong language along these lines:
“We all agree that freedom of religion, the right to believe as your conscience guides you, is a defining aspect of the United States of America. It was so important a standard of democracy that Thomas Jefferson etched it on his own tombstone as his second greatest achievement after writing the Declaration of Independence.
But what is the foundation on which religious freedom still stands as an American ideal some 238 years later? It is the tolerance and understanding that the people of this country show for those whose beliefs are different from theirs.
The freedom to believe or not believe a certain way without fear of penalty is not a privilege to be parsed out by government. It is a God-given right articulated by Jefferson and made law by our Constitution. This bill, however, seeks to protect the beliefs of one group by taking away the rights of another.
That Arizona would refuse public accommodation to a class of people because of religious antipathy toward their sexual orientation is not only unlawful, government-sponsored discrimination. It is a threat to every group of Americans whose religious beliefs are different from those who have the power to make law.
No. The bill is vetoed, and I pray I never have to reject anything like this again.
Note: This post is from my new crisis and controversy PR blog, BadNewsHandbook.com, which will launch on March 15, 2014. Please send questions you'd like to see answered to email@example.com.