Dear Mr. LaPierre,
I’m writing this open letter as a concerned citizen and interested observer to provide some sound public/media relations advice and analysis. The reason is because the NRA has shot itself in the foot yet again from a public relations (PR) perspective — and, no less, during the heart of the holiday season.
The NRA’s press event Friday presented you with a national and global audience listening closely to your every word. This was a rare PR opportunity. It’s too bad you blew it, sir.
This global PR gaffe should be of the utmost concern to you and your membership.
When Policy Trumps PR
To master this type of PR situation, both excellent timing and potent messaging must strike the intended target by simultaneously piercing the bullseye. However, the NRA’s timing was premature and your message was misunderstood by many — despite the self-presumed merits and strength of your position.
This is a good example of policy dictating PR rather than working in sync to enhance an organization’s reputation and brand image.
Why verbally assault the American public during an already tumultuous time? The NRA should have known better than to pour salt on an open wound. A more strategic and better planned step-by-step communications strategy was needed to convey your purported solution in the most convincing terms.
I would advise the NRA to next time think more about both the short-term and long-term consequences of its communications choices. Your message was not well received because it was not well delivered or well timed.
The NRA did not have to fire all that ammo at a public still grieving and coming to terms with the horror of the Newtown massacre. You were correct to remain relatively silent for one week. The NRA would have been better off by holding off until after the new year. A simple statement would have continued to suffice, such as:
The NRA is refraining from comment during this time out of respect for the families of Newtown and the many lives lost, as well as out of respect for the collective American familiy. There will be abundant time to address and debate firearms issues in the new year. However, now is a time for national prayer and recovery, especially during this holiday season.
Unfortunately, Mr. Pierre, the NRA did the opposite by strictly pandering to the pro-gun base. This PR gaffe only succeeded in further damaging the reputation and public perception of the NRA at the very time it needed to be uplifted, or at the very least not further villified.
The first sentence of a front page article in Saturday’s Washington Post summed it up well. The Post reported, based on your remarks, that the NRA was “fierce” and “defiant.” You answered the current “challenge” by immediately going into “battle” mode with bravado.
You should have aimed for the media to describe your remarks as heart-felt, cooperative, understanding and open. You should have wanted these words, if nothing else, to create the public perception that the NRA is rational and willing to work in a big tent.
However, I suppose if the NRA had a truly effective communications strategy it would not still be one of the most reviled lobbying groups in the nation after all these years. Thus, at the risk of being a socalled “Monday Morning Quarterback,” here’s what you should have said, sir…
Show Some Sympathy
First, the only reason the NRA currently commands the nation’s full attention is because of a cold blooded and evil slaughter of young innocent school children with a military-style assault weapon (semi-automatic) – you know, the type of armament which used to be banned from public use.
This national tragedy provided the NRA with a golden opportunity to show real leadership and humanize the issue. Unfortunately, you fired blanks.
With the nation still collectively in mourning, the least the NRA could have done was to show some sympathy. Wait for the last funeral to end. Wait for the American flag to return to full staff.
Next time have more patience and presence of mind prior to pulling the proverbial trigger.
(Pictured Above: Wayne LaPierre, CEO and EVP of the NRA)
It would have helped, for example, had you spent more time talking about the Newtown tragedy and less time firing off verbal attacks on the media, the entertainment industry, etc. The NRA should have tried to put more humility on display, similar to when the President shed tears on camera. There’s plenty of time for vigorous arguments, however, now is the time for healing — particularly with Christmas and New Year’s around the corner.
You should have spoken more about firearms safety promotion and proactive prevention of gun-related mass murders. How can the NRA ever expect the public to take it seriously when you continually fail to show a sense of humanity and humility?
This was the time to be soft spoken and appear reasonable, not to fire off rounds like a verbal machine gun. Next time, Mr. LaPierre, try being more emotional, sympathetic and empathetic – humble wouldn’t hurt either. I’m sure you know by now that the NRA is poorly perceived at best, while being despised at worst. Yes, the NRA’s membership of four million is formidable, but don’t forget the U.S. population stands at over 300 million and is growing fast.
Large lobbying groups like yours must first make a personal human connection with the American people in order to turn around a berated brand image. But, then again, that’s assuming the NRA actually cares what the majority of Americans think – a questionable proposition in this instance.
Extend Your Hand, Not Fist
Second, after expressing sincere sympathy, understanding and remorse, you should have extended your hand to the President, Congress and even the anti-gun lobby – yes, your primary nemesis. That would have earned you some respect and perhaps even much needed political capital if it shifted public opinion in your direction.
Don’t immediately try to shove solutions down the throat of the American people, many of whom are still grieving and processing the Newtown massacre. The NRA can always intimidate, harass and threaten politicians behind closed doors out of the public eye. So why lower yourself to offending the American public right now by raising your fists like a boxer? This was not the time or the place — and, remember, timing counts in winning over public opinion.
Rather than acting like a despot, you should have explained that the NRA wants to work in a collegial and cooperative manner with all interested parties – not just gun owners. This is not a totalitarian State and you are not a Czar, sir.
The NRA’s message should have been one of comfort with a human touch. As former President George H.W. Bush might have said, present a kinder and gentler NRA to the public. In short, ease up a bit.
You should have talked more about how badly the NRA feels in the wake of Newtown and related shooting sprees. You should have conveyed more deepy that the NRA understands the magnitude of this historic tragedy and that gun owners are people too.
You should have said the NRA wants to help solve the problem of mass gun violence — regardless of whether you think it’s real or perceived. The NRA should have forcefully asserted that it is ready and willing to work together with stakeholders from all sides.
Please, Mr. LaPierre, don’t tell America the NRA has the only rational answer and we should all just fall in line because you know best. That only further hardens your already intransigent image. Save it for later when the real legislative debate begins on the floor of Congress in 2013.
Refrain From Targeting the Media
Third, don’t attack the press. Haven’t you learned anything yet?
The NRA and its flacks should know that verbally assaulting the media does not positively impact public opinion or soften your image. Do you really want or need banner tabloid headlines calling you and the NRA heartless lunatics? How does that help enhance the NRA’s sagging public perception?
Can’t the NRA do better than scapegoat this issue? Of course, the NRA has deep disdain for the news media, and perhaps for good reason. You think the mainstream media are openly biased, unbalanced and leftist, to put it nicely.
Yet regardless of whether the media are in fact your enemy, one should never throw lighter fluid on a fire when trying to extinguish the flames. That’s simply counterproductive, dangerous, and utterly irrational. The same concept applies to social media, which presents a golden opportunity to bypass the traditional press gatekeepers you so openly despise.
Answering the Protesters
Lastly, since you were already in battle mode, the NRA had an ideal springboard to address broad Constitutional issues after you were shouted down by protesters. Reporters even begged you for a response. The demonstrators claimed on live TV, before tens of millions of viewers, that the NRA has blood on its hands. Letting such a harsh attack go unaddressed lets your opponents further define you. In fact, you looked like a deer caught in the headlights.
You should have reiterated that just as the the protesters have the basic right to free speech, every American likewise has the basic right to keep and bear arms — with minimal restrictions, similar to freedom of speech. Why did you fail to draw this critical nexus between the First and Second Amendments contained in the Bill of Rights?
You could have used that segway to diplomatically further articulate the NRA’s long-held position about how and why the U.S. Constitution provides the citizenry with unrestricted gun rights (in your view). You could have cited Supreme Court precedent on the issue and other supporting facts.
Unfortunately, Mr. LaPierre, you did none of the above.
In essence, unlike a well trained marksman, the NRA’s patronizing and self-righteous stance completely missed the target by further alienating the public. Remember, timing counts in addition to your main message.
Better luck next time, sir.
Guns & Government: What’s the Solution?
* As always, all views and opinions expressed herein represent those of the author only.