By Anne Sweeney

In the wake of a bitter backlash to Indiana’s controversial Religious Freedom Law, the state’s Department of Economic Development has engaged a public relations firm, Porter Novelli, to repair its tattered image. The legislation generated furious condemnation from business leaders, politicians and the public, amid fears the law could allow businesses to refuse service to individuals based on the proprietor’s religious beliefs. The law was seen as directed at the LGBT community, but many saw its potential to allow discrimination on the basis of gender and race. There followed cancelations of construction projects, business travel, conferences and events.

Porter Novelli’s fee is reported to be $750,000 for six months, and fees for a second phase of the project is to be negotiated. Indiana plans to spend $2 million to reinvent itself as “a welcoming place to live, visit and do business.” First on the firm’s agenda is to find a new slogan to replace the present Honest to Goodness Indiana, which now rings hollow in view of the crisis.

Can a PR firm succeed when the damage is so vast and far-reaching? How does the state overcome the scathing criticisms of prominent business executives, politicians, athletes, entertainers and the LGBT community? Not all of the boycotts announced have been withdrawn, and decisions to halt construction and cancel meetings and events continue.

The Indiana Legislature revised and clarified the law – not to everyone’s satisfaction. Some opponents remain unconvinced and the religious right castigated politicans for “selling out,” with rhetoric that reinforced the perception that Indiana was full of homophobic bigots. This is profoundly unfair to the vast majority of Indianans who do not support these views and whose businesses have suffered.

It is still too soon to tally up the full monetary loss but it will be high. Hospitality and tourism will be taking a big hit, as they usually do when the controversial actions of lawmakers generate boycotts and protests. An example is the reaction to Arizona’s 2010 immigration laws. Cancellations of meetings and business travel cost the state an estimated $145 million – $45 million of that came from the lodging industry. Much of that was made up by increased leisure travel and an improved economy. After the law failed to hold up in court, some of the boycotting groups cancelled their protests on the grounds that the people who were hurt most are lower paid workers in the service industries as well as those involved in construction, retail and entertainment.

The battle lines in these cases are usually drawn along political and cultural issues. The left is quick to call for action in the face of fire from the right. Unfortunately, in many of these instances, the travel industry is collateral damage in the Culture Wars. Tourism and hospitality should not suffer because politicians of either persuasion curry favor with constituents. Often, these laws do not hold up to constitutional scrutiny and some cynical politicians know that going in, but find such legislation a useful way to pander to their base. Others are sincere and fervent believers in the rightness of their cause. Still others are quick to capitalize on the situation. Really, how many state employees from New York, Washington and Connecticut travel to Indiana? Gubernatorial grandstanding, from either the right or the left, just keeps the controversy going when we should be looking for solutions.

Freedom of Religion laws are on the books in many states and have been since the Clinton Administration. Most were modeled after Federal statues designed to protect people from discrimination in certain instances where religious freedom might be compromised. Indiana claims its law was in line with these models and that the new version of the law clarifies its intent. But it is far too late for that. The Indiana law was seen as unclear at best and homophobic and discriminatory at worst.

The controversy is not over. Governor Mike Pence continues to draw negative attention, not just for this divisive law but for cutting back food stamps and justifying that with comments about “ennobling” the poor. The governor then did what many people in crisis situations do – go into major denial. Pence declared the controversy over, and hired Porter Novelli to clean up the mess at taxpayer expense. There is no mention of the law or the protests on the governor’s website. The law in a different form remains on the books and boycotts are in place. Enormous harm has been done to the Indiana brand and efforts to rebuild it will take years and much more than $2 million dollars.

Like so many crises today, this one was self-inflicted. It did not have to happen but many brands are damaged or destroyed by cultural insensitivity, political corruption, sheer stupidity, and people with a religious and/or political agenda: the Susan B. Komen scandal, AIG’s post-bailout party, BP’s self-serving and stumbling executives and the Chick-fil-A fiasco.

The travel industry must find a way to stop politicians from introducing laws that will not pass constitutional muster but will surely generate controversy and severe backlash. Politicians who pander to the more reactionary elements of their constituents may win votes short- term. These are the people who regularly turn up at the polls, often carrying inflammatory signs denouncing an array of evils and warning of hellfire and damnation. But are they the people who travel, who spend money on entertainment, dining, hotels, gaming and big ticket sports events? The demographics driving these laws are not usually the travel industry’s best customers. And, they are dying out. LGBT acceptance has grown substantially. Religious affiliations and observance are changing across the board and especially among the travel industry’s once and future customers – Millennials. According to the Pew Research Center, one-third of Americans under 30 have no religious affiliation. Experts cite a number of reasons for this, including wider Internet use and rejection of some religions’ association with socially conservative politics. An ethnically diverse group, they are unlikely to travel to places where they might be discriminated against.

As a public relations professional with long experience in the travel industry, I realize that there are some problems that public relations cannot completely solve. We can contain the damage, manage the message, and hope that a new and more controversial situation will arise to distract the public and press. We can compensate the victims, recall the cars, treat the injured, and clean up the oil spill. But no amount of spin is going to make the bad thing go away completely. Real damage has been done and in the case of Indiana, that damage is severe and ongoing – a gift that keeps on giving to media and opposing politicians and interest groups. It is not going to be repaired with pretty pictures of tourist sites and smiling Hoosiers. What we can do is take steps to stop self-serving politicans from taking action that impacts our businesses and our lives.