By: Doug Ferguson, AP Golf Writer
(AP) Silent for more than two months, Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson has gone on a media blitz to round up support for the club’s all-male membership.
He wrote an editorial for The Wall Street Journal.
He commissioned a poll that shows most people agree with Augusta National’s right to associate with whomever it wants.
And he gave interviews to a small group of reporters, Johnson’s first public words since he slipped the green jacket on Tiger Woods after winning the Masters last April.
The media campaign has left public relations specialists wondering whether it would sway opinion on the debate over Augusta’s membership.
“When you come out with a media blitz, it’s perceived as scrambling. It comes across much more as an act of desperation,” said Jonathan Bernstein, whose Los Angeles-based company, Bernstein Communications, specializes in crisis management. “But it’s also a case of ‘better late than never.’ He had a message to get across.”
Augusta National, under attack from Martha Burk and the National Council of Women’s Organizations since July, hired a media consultant six weeks ago.
Why talk now?
“You have to say, ‘Whom can this kind of information affect?’ It does not affect those people who already have made up their mind,” said Mary Ann Ferguson, a journalism and communications professor at the University of Florida.
In an interview last week, Johnson said there had been speculation about when Augusta National would have a female member, and, “I thought we ought to get the record straight.”
He reiterated that the club alone would decide when to add a female member, and that there was no chance one would be invited to join before the next Masters in April.
Johnson did not deviate much from his July 9 statement on the history, tradition, and constitutional rights of the club to associate with whomever it pleases.
If that was the case, why say anything at all?
“Regardless of what you say, if you don’t say what the other side wants you to say, you’re better off keeping your mouth shut,” said Mike Herman, president of Epley & Associates public relations firm in Charlotte, N.C. “I think the silence carried a message.
“It seems to me that the club has itself in a situation where whatever it does, it looks defensive. And I’m not sure either the club membership or the club leadership sees that as a negative.”
Johnson made sure reporters saw stacks of letters on his desk that he said supported Augusta National, and a telephone survey of 624 newspaper readers in Pennsylvania — 90% of whom said he was right.
He leaned heavily on Wednesday’s poll to illustrate support.
The 48-question survey asked about the First Amendment and which women’s issues take high priority, eventually honing in on Augusta National’s rights as a private club.
One question asked respondents if they agree with this statement:
“The Augusta National Golf Club was correct in its decision not to give in to Martha Burk’s demand. They should review and change their policies on their own time, and in their own way.”
Seventy-two percent agreed.
Harry O’Neill, chairman of the polling review board of the National Council of Public Polls, said the survey included “terribly loaded questions” with “emotionally loaded words.”
“They would serve themselves much better if they had done a more succinct survey without any questions that were obviously biased or loaded in their wording,” O’Neill said. “They didn’t do themselves any favors.”
Burk dismissed the poll as “sort of an amateurish attempt to bolster their position against women.”
The poll was conducted by Washington-based The Polling Company Inc. and WomenTrend. The president of WomenTrend defended the validity of the poll and said some of the questions invited dissension.
“I’m not going to risk my reputation because a certain client wants a certain result,” Kellyanne Conway said.
While Burk said she has made progress, no one has resigned his membership at Augusta. Johnson already dismissed the Masters’ TV sponsors, CBS Sports has said it will televise the tournament, and commissioner Tim Finchem said the PGA Tour would continue to recognize the major championship as an official event.
Still, some people believe Augusta National had no choice but to make its case.
“The NCWO has been aggressively pressing this thing,” said Fraser Seitel, whose book, The Practice of Public Relations, is used in 200 colleges and universities. “Augusta was clearly losing, and they were going to be losing further if they had not stepped up and stated their position. They would have lost by default.”
Rene Henry wasn’t so sure.
Henry is the author of You’d Better Have a Hose If You Want to Put Out the Fire: The Complete Guide to Crisis and Risk Management. “I don’t ever recommend fighting back unless you’re right,” Henry said.
Which side is right will be debated until the Masters, and possibly beyond.