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  • Writer's pictureBen Finzel

Three Lessons for Communicators from the Indiana RFRA Debacle

Despite the presence of so-called “religious freedom” laws on the books in 30 other states, the original version of the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” (RFRA) signed into law in Indiana last month ignited a firestorm of controversy in a very short period of time. Given that the bill is somewhat similar (although much more broad) to other existing state laws, why did this one generate such swift, negative reaction?

There were many reasons – including the fact that the bill’s broader mandates were highlighted as so sweeping as to be inclusive of broader groups of people (including LGBT people) and so negative as to be deemed damaging to society and business.

After much public pressure – and the inevitable news stories chronicling it – the Indiana legislature has developed and passed a new version based on the Governor’s request.

So how did this happen and what does it mean for communicators? I have identified three specific lessons for communicators that provide direction and guidance for the future. The lessons are based on three of the four basic principles of communications that I consider fundamental to restoring common sense to communications: truth, clarity and collaboration.

1) Truth trumps all. The reality of the Indiana RFRA bill was that is was more restrictive than other laws and would have a far greater impact. When these facts were made known – and reinforced by media coverage – the effort collapsed under its own weight.

For communicators, the lesson here is that your strategy must be true to who you are and what you stand for: while the original bill may have been true to its sponsors, once it was “unmasked” as being about much more than “just” religious protection, it became clear that its discriminatory impact was not true to a significant segment of the state’s population.

2) The right message can move mountains (and/or political leaders). RFRA opponents highlighted the overly broad, negative impact of the Indiana bill and explained how far-reaching its impact would be – and they tied that impact to economic concerns that clearly resonated with multiple audiences.

For communicators, the lesson here is that what you say is just as important as how you say it and whom you say it to. It’s all about relevance and context. What can you say in your messaging that is relevant to the context you trying to address? In this case, the message was compelling, direct and easy to understand and it helped create a context for which it was immediately relevant.

3) Collaboration works. As I’ve written before in the context of the rise and fall of Congressman Aaron Schock, working in partnership with others and building coalitions around key issues is a winning strategy. Failing to do that is a losing strategy. The original Indiana RFRA bill met such a swift end because mainstream business leaders – emboldened by their employees, customers and business partners – spoke out forcefully on the need to repeal and/or “fix” it. That public pressure, magnified by extensive media coverage, proved to be too much for supporters of the bill.

For communicators, the lesson here is to spend time building coalitions and collaborating with others before you need them, so that they are armed and ready to speak up and out on your behalf when you need them. The LGBT community – thanks to the leadership of out elected officials like Indianapolis City Councilman Zach Adamson and business-focused organizations such as the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce and Out and Equal – has spent years working with business, community and other leaders to educate them about the economic and social impact of diverse communities. That work paid off in this situation and demonstrated the power of partnerships.

It will be interesting to see what happens to implementation of the new Indiana law when the media attention fades and the news cycle moves on to other topics. But regardless of what happens next, communicators would do well to heed the lessons of this legislative debacle as they consider how best to plan for and address future situations affecting their partners, communities, organizations and businesses.

Photo Below: A factory in East Chicago, Indiana.

Factory in East Chicago, IN

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