The Court of Public Opinion Will Determine the Embattled Organization’s Future
2/20/20 – – The Boy Scouts of America this week filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Facing unfathomable financial exposure from potentially thousands of sexual abuse lawsuits, the 110-year-old youth organization explained that the two goals of its legal action are to, “equitably compensate victims who were harmed during their time in Scouting and continue carrying out its mission for years to come.”
A bankruptcy court in Delaware will address the “equitable compensation” goal, examining the Boy Scouts’ assets and creating a manageable process to distribute whatever funds are made available to victims who come forward by a deadline.
As for the Scouts’ “continue carrying out its mission for years to come” challenge, that’s in the hands of a more powerful court — the court of public opinion.
How do you feel about the future of the Boy Scouts of America? Is it still an important, contributing American institution? Or has it lost its way and outlived its relevance? (From a high in 1969 of 6 million in Scouting, there are now just over 2 million participating.) Is this bankruptcy driven by a sincere commitment to do what’s right for the victims? Or is it motivated by a pragmatic desire to limit the Scouts’ liability for egregious sins? Have the Boy Scouts of America earned your forgiveness or ire?
From the press coverage I’m seeing and the responses I’m getting from friends, the long-term survival of the Boy Scouts of America is anything but a sure thing.
The severity of this crisis should not be a surprise to readers of The Crisis Preparedness Quotient or this blog. One of the 10 characteristics of crises we discuss in Chapter 4 (“How Crises Typically Play Out”) is: “The severity and duration of a crisis are determined in large measure by the level of organizational betrayal.” The closer a company or organization comes to violating its core purpose and promises, the more damaging the crisis will be. Other than the Catholic Church’s pedophilia crisis, it’s hard to find betrayal worse than the abuse experienced by thousands of trusting boys seeking life guidance from the Boy Scouts of America. As National Chair Jim Turley admits in his open letter to victims, “I am devastated that there were times in the past when we failed the very children we were supposed to protect.”
The harshness of media coverage is also to be expected. Reporters ask three threshold questions when covering a crisis: what did you know . . . when did you know it . . . and what did you do about it? They understand that bad things can happen to anyone. But what gets their attention (and ire) is when people within an organization are aware of issues for long periods of time and do nothing to address them. The Scouts do not dispute the fact that from 1944 to as recently as 2016, “perversion files” were kept on offending scout masters and their alleged victims. The numbers are staggering: 7,819 perpetrators and 12,254 victims. While the laudable purpose of this record keeping was to keep bad actors from coming back into the organization, information was kept internal and there was no outreach to law enforcement.
So what should the Boy Scouts do to get a favorable outcome in the court of public opinion?
Here’s some good advice offered today on the editorial page of the Dallas Morning News:
The top-line out of this legal morass is clear and even simple, if also hard to do: The Boy Scouts of America needs to lead in showing how a venerated organization can do right by victims as it works to restore its ability to serve as an important cultural institution.
Being perceived as doing right by victims will be made more difficult by any effort, even if legally justified, to protect the assets of local Boy Scout councils (they’re not included in the bankruptcy filing) from being tapped for the compensation fund. Unfortunately, with 272 local councils (many own great real estate) there will be plenty of opportunity for negative media coverage driven by attorneys representing the victims.
As the bankruptcy proceeds, Boy Scout leadership must work very hard to minimize the chances of continuing sexual abuse. To its credit, the organization has implemented strong policies and procedures, including:
- Prompt mandatory reporting to law enforcement of any allegation or suspicion of abuse.
- The Volunteer Screening Database – a tool the CDC recommends for all youth-serving organizations – which prohibits known or suspected abusers from registering for Scouting programs.
- Criminal background checks for all volunteers and employees.
- Mandatory youth protection training for all volunteers and employees every two years.
- A ban on one-on-one contact between adults and youth – in person, online, or via text.
- Educational materials on youth safety for parents and Scouts.
- A 24/7 helpline (1-844-Scouts1) and email (Scouts1st@Scouting.org) for help accessing in-person counselling and assistance reporting any suspected abuse or inappropriate behavior.
And to drive home the 21st century relevance of Scouting, more media stories must be generated highlighting the activities and successes of today’s Boy Scouts. My guess is that the only news most people have been seeing in recent years is about membership decline, messing with the mission (girls, even though the Girl Scouts are thriving, can join the Boy Scouts) and the sexual abuse scandal. Reversing that absence of balanced coverage has to be an urgent priority for the Boy Scouts’ PR folks.
My connection to Scouting ended six decades ago when I took off my fraying blue Cub Scout uniform for the last time. I loved the gold scarf, hated the funny little hat, and tried my best to earn every available merit badge. Living in suburban Sherman Oaks, California, I could never set up a time to safely get approved for being able to start a camp fire. That badge, which was very cool (flames climbing from a stack of logs), escaped me. Still, I had a positive experience and have a soft spot in my heart for the organization.
But as a member of the jury in the court of public opinion, I don’t know enough about what’s happening today to be a strong advocate for the Boy Scouts’ survival. I hope we all learn more from the organization in the months ahead.