By Lesley Weidenbener
Lesley Weidenbener, executive editor, TheStatehouseFile.com
INDIANAPOLIS – When the General Assembly’s session ended last month, Gov. Mike Pence and legislative leaders insisted that the controversy over the religious freedom restoration act was over.
But the state’s jobs agency must not think so.
The Indiana Economic Development Corporation is paying $750,000 to a New York public relations firm for the first part of a “reputation enhancement initiative.”
And one thing that might have to go – according a story in the Indianapolis Business Journal – is the state’s “Honest to Goodness” slogan. It seems the traditional sentiment sounds just a little too downhome for a state trying to recover from criticism that leaders sought to legalize discrimination against people who are gay.
“It’s difficult to see Honest to Goodness as a slogan for state tourism at this point in time,” Jo Wade, president of Visit Lafayette-West Lafayette, told the Indianapolis Business Journal. “People want to grab anything they can to remember their anger toward our state, and Honest to Goodness could be a flare-up. At the time we passed RFRA, people didn’t see that as honest or good.”
Those who backed the so-called RFRA law say that discrimination was never the goal. But legislative leaders were concerned enough about the backlash to pass a “fix” for the law, one that Gov. Mike Pence signed. And then they said the controversy was over.
Now, it seems that was just wishful thinking.
The $750,000 contract finalized last week is just the down payment on what’s expected to be a $2 million effort to fix the state’s reputation.
Tourism leaders across the state have said it’s needed. Conventions have expressed concern about locating their events in Indiana and some entertainment venues have had groups seeking refunds. The Indianapolis Star reported last week the International Association of Fairs and Expositions chose another city for its 2018 and 2019 conventions, in part because of RFRA.
And The Star also had Leonard Hoops, president of Visit Indy, quoting an executive from a group that decided not to come to Indiana saying, “The bad taste of that single action, even though it has been changed, will last for quite some time.”
In case state leaders still don’t think it’s a big deal, they should consider this, also from the IBJ: Carrie Lambert, executive director of the Indiana Tourism Association said there’s a feeling of urgency among her members.
“Our biggest fear is the bid cycle that is going on right now,” Lambert said. “We have a lot of meeting and tour planners telling us that now is just not the time to announce you’re coming to Indiana. The bookings are drying up and that could cause a big issue in three to five years.”
Many have called on lawmakers to try again to fix the problem by adding sexual orientation to a law that bans discrimination based on gender, race and religion. Certainly, that would help.
But the damage is probably done anyway. It’s unlikely passage of anti-discrimination law would ever get the national attention that RFRA gained. After all, roughly half of the states already have that law and so it’s not unusual. What makes it news in Indiana is only that it’s an about face from RFRA.
It will take more than that to undo the RFRA damage. And the first step has to be a persistent effort by Republican leaders – who have a stranglehold on state government – to resist taking actions that reinforce the reputation RFRA has thrust upon the state. Until that occurs, there’s not much a public relations effort can fix.
Lesley Weidenbener is the executive editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a new website powered by Franklin College journalism students.