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PR Pros Weigh In on How Masters Should Address Gender Debate

Will Augusta National Extend Female CEO of Sponsor IBM a Membership?

By Published on . 5

Augusta National Golf Club, which hosts the IBM-sponsored PGA Masters Tournament, is a boys club, literally. But the new IBM CEO, Ginni Rometty, is a woman.

Virginia M. Rometty, IBM
Virginia M. Rometty, IBM

Typically, IBM CEOs have been admitted as members, but unless Augusta changes its long-standing rules, she cannot be. Though Augusta has been scrutinized over its diversity governance in the past, this situation, for the first time, creates a PR puzzle that could potentially affect the actual sponsorship dollars funding the tour. We asked a few PR professionals weigh in on the appropriate next steps for the PGA Tour.

Michele Clarke, PR vet and Advisory Board member at Media Advisory Partners:
What the PGA really needs to worry about here is losing IBM's sponsorship dollars. They've let Augusta management embarrass IBM, a longtime and loyal customer, publicly. That's a dangerous decision. And they've known about this issue since Ginni was named CEO. If they weren't willing to [work with Augusta] to invite her to be a member, they should have arranged with IBM long beforehand to invite her and have her decline, saving face on both sides. The question now becomes: Why would IBM continue to sponsor such disrespectful organizations?

With play now underway, the PGA has few positive options. The questions at Wednesday's kick-off press conference will likely turn more strident as the weekend wears on. At this point, anything less than inviting IBM's current CEO to be a member will create more negatives. That includes the course they appear to be taking -- describe her as a "named candidate" and in effect ignore the situation altogether until play is over.

The one potential saving grace -- assuming they want to retain their male-only membership convention -- could be to invite her, stressing the status as "honorary" member and draw a distinction between the IBM CEO's status and "full" members, and move on.

Mike Paul, "The Reputation Doctor," MGP & Associates PR:
If the PGA were my client, I would counsel them to accomplish the following:

1) Make clear as a private club, it is Augusta National's full responsibility and decision regarding membership.

2) Sponsors are also responsible for their own decisions regarding sponsorship, which comes with risks and rewards.

3) However, be sure to communicate the PGA as its mission welcomes and encourages ALL to enjoy the game of golf.

As a result, I would offer the PGA the following statement to release publicly on the issue:

"Augusta National Golf Club is a private golf club and fully responsible for its own membership decisions. The sponsors of the Masters tournament are also responsible for their own decisions. The PGA is an organization which encourages as part of its mission for all children and adults of every age and every gender to enjoy and participate in the great game of golf and we will continue to do so."

Ben Boyd, Global Chair, corporate practice, Edelman:
It's a hard assignment. The [first] role of the PR firm is to pose provocative questions to the leadership of PGA. Why, at the outset, would you have chosen Augusta National given the governance of 'no women' and given scrutiny year-over-year around [diversity]. Also, have you as an association ever worked with them to reconsider policy? Certainly PGA and IBM have had a conversation around this.

The institutions, including PGA, IBM or Augusta National have to be clear around who they are and how they operate in the service of their constituencies. Vast majority of institutions don't do enough in terms of preparedness, thinking about brand impact.

Though it's not black and white what the response should be without more information, it's indefensible to stay silent in this world. If they have a contractual obligation they have to honor by sticking with Augusta, then they should say at least that . But to be silent in the face of the questions, and in some people's minds the controversy, is unacceptable. On- and off-line, around Seder and Easter tables, the conversation will only be heightened over the weekend around this and their point-of -view; they should have one. If they don't, shame on them. At least articulate that for people to judge on the merits.

A sweet-spot demographic is definitely a male audience. That said, there are secondary and tertiary segmentations that must matter to them and the brands associated with them. The president recently said that women are not a special interest group. By not thinking in the context of an ever-changing world, they throw into jeopardy the future decision of other corporate brands to partner with them in a sponsorship capacity.

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