Indiana Hires PR Firm to Rebuild Image in Wake of Religious Freedom Controversy
By Tom LoBianco and Tony Cook
Indiana's economic development and tourism agencies announced Monday they have hired global PR firm Porter Novelli to help rebuild the state's image in the wake of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act debacle.
The state will spend the coming days building a public relations strategy with the firm and stakeholders across the state and plans to spend $2 million with Porter Novelli, plus however much more is needed in actual advertising buys.
"The recent controversy has advanced the thinking of just a lot of people, that you can't take for granted that people know what Indiana is," said Chris Cotterill, general counsel for the Indiana Economic Development Corp.
The state took a major public relations hit at the start of the month with the swirl of negative attention surrounding Gov. Mike Pence's signing of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. There is little doubt that Indiana's national image took a hit, but nobody has been able to quantify exactly how much damage was done.
Opponents feared the act would allow Indiana businesses to discriminate against gays and lesbians. After a national backlash, the law was clarified by the legislature at Pence's urging, explicitly forbidding the erosion of local ordinances that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.
The decision to hire Porter Novelli, which has 100 offices in 60 countries, was made last week. State leaders specifically sought a company with global reach that could approach the state's branding with an outsider's eyes, Cotterill said.
The decision speaks directly to concerns raised by Indianapolis business leaders that the state was set to lose hundreds of millions of dollars if the law had been allowed to stand unchanged.
"We know that having an agency with outside perspective and one that has helped other consumer and government brands with image restoration campaigns is beneficial," said Chris Gahl, vice president of marketing for Visit Indy, the city's tourism branch. "Clearly the last two weeks have beat up and tarnished the state's reputation as a welcoming place."
Pence himself clearly took a PR hit, but determining exactly how much he has suffered in the public eye is difficult.
The Human Rights Campaign, a national group supporting the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, released poll results Monday showing Pence taking a massive hit in his public approval rating.
The group gauged Pence's job approval at 43 percent in the week after the national RFRA debate, but it polled only 500 residents and asked questions about "discrimination" as opposed to "religious freedom." The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.38 percentage points, the group said.
Polls before the RFRA debate put Pence's approval rating as high as 66 percent.
"Elected officials, and governors specifically, who experiment with these anti-LGBT bills that allow businesses to discriminate against LGBT people do so at their own peril," JoDee Winterhof, the Human Rights Campaign's vice president of policy and political affairs, said in a statement Monday evening.
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