sandyhook

Deconstructing the NRA response to Sandy Hook

Every good recipe for deception begins with an ounce of truth.

Whoever is managing the current public relations crisis facing the National Rifle Association clearly understands this fundamental principle. In the days since the tragic shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, the NRA has offered a textbook execution of the crisis communication playbook, employing everything from ducking out of sight for a few days to clever messaging strategy to an attempt to throttle the public profile of media coverage through timing tactics that are as cynical as they are traditional. My former colleague Patrick Veccio, who spent a lot of years in the newsroom watching how PR firms attempted to play the press, explains that last part:

Public relations professionals, press agents and political spokespersons try to avoid announcing bad news until late afternoon Fridays. They hope the bad news will be less apt to get attention or generate discussion over the weekend. They hope by Monday, the story will be running out of legs because the weekend has defused it.

After a week of silence, LaPierre and the NRA knew they had to say something before gun control advocates took ownership of the discussion about preventing another Sandy Hook slaughter. No matter when the NRA brass crawled out of their spider hole, they were going to have to face the blinding media light.

Obviously, the “quiet until late Friday” trick was doomed. The delay in answering questions until Monday, though, is a deliberate move. Monday is Christmas Eve. Tuesday is Christmas. LaPierre and Keene hope the weekend and the holidays will give them time to regroup and mitigate the damage from LaPierre’s ranting.

The NRA obviously hoped that by the time America surfaced from its extended holiday food- and gift-fest the edge would be off its outrage over Sandy Hook. They also probably hoped you didn’t notice the Christmas Eve ambush of a suburban NY firefighting crew at all.

A gunman ambushed firefighters responding to a house fire in the Rochester suburb of Webster, N.Y., early Monday, killing two firemen and injuring two others.

The shooter was later found dead of gunshot wounds near the scene, according to Webster Police Chief Gerald Pickering.

Pickering, choking up frequently as he spoke to reporters, said all four firefighters who responded to the call at 5:35 a.m. ET came under fire when they drove up.

The dead are Lt. Mike Chiapperini, 43, a volunteer firefighter and the Webster Police Department’s public information officer, and Tomasz Kaczowka.

“It is a very difficult situation,” Pickering said, his voice quavering.

“People get up in the middle of the night to fight fires,” he said. “They don’t expect to be shot and killed.”

It isn’t yet clear how successful the NRA strategy has been or will be. For sure, they find themselves in the crosshairs of mainstream media coverage of the Sandy Hook aftermath and they’ve taken a serious whipping in the online/social media world.

Twitter’s reaction to Friday’s press conference was swift and almost universally negative. A search for the #NRA hashtag yielded thousands of tweets criticizing LaPierre for his proposals for a database of people with mental illness and to put armed guards in schools.

Though a handful of NRA supporters and conservatives using the #tcot hashtag offered completely positive comments, others criticized the organization.

“This press conference [is the] best Christmas present the White House and the Democrats could get!” wrote Twitterer R. Saddler.

Many who tweeted about the conference remarked about the surreal atmosphere of the press conference itself, in which two protesters shouted at LaPierre and were quickly escorted out. Syndicated columnist Tina Dupay called it a perfect example of a “tone deaf” press conference, and Matt Seaton of The Guardian said it should make year-end lists as the worst speech of 2012.

Twitterer Tom Sauer perhaps put it most succinctly:

“Well that was a train wreck.”

It probably seems obvious to say that whatever the nation and its elected leaders decide to do or not do about firearms, that decision should be a result of thoughtful, informed consideration of the issue, not the efficacy of the NRA’s spin job. Still, we live in a media-driven culture with a frightfully brief attention span. Our ability to lose focus, especially in the presence of artful misdirection, isn’t to be underestimated. It’s therefore important for us to cast as much light as possible on said misdirection.

On December 20, Michael Sebastien at PR Daily published their Top 10 PR disasters of 2012. He probably wishes he’d held fire for a few days. While the Komen affair, Romney’s 47% gaffe, Todd Akin, Lance Armstrong and Chik-Fil-A kept industry observers marveling at just how much foot one mouth will hold, the NRA’s performance since Sandy Hook would certainly rank them in the top three if we were compiling the list today.

That said, this rumble has barely begun and in the final analysis, Wayne LaPierre’s abject cluelessness may wind up not mattering in the least.

Rohit Bhargava does a wonderful job of explaining how the NRA made use of the three biggest PR crisis response tricks in the book.

NRA MESSAGE #1 – GUNS ARE NOT THE PROBLEM – UNSAFE AND UNPROTECTED SCHOOLS ARE THE PROBLEM.
Strategy: Elevate the issue. If the issue being debated is easy access to deadly weapons, then the NRA will lose. If the issue, instead, becomes that our schools are not safe enough … then the NRA has a chance. So we saw over and over again throughout the press conference that NRA CEO Wayne Lapierre talked about the ways that our schools aren’t safe enough, and called on the government to spend whatever would be necessary to better protect schools.

NRA MESSAGE #2 – THE ONLY DEFENSE AGAINST A BAD GUY WITH A GUN IS A GOOD GUY WITH A GUN.
Strategy: Play offense instead of defense. When it comes to defending anyone’s right to have guns, the NRA would have a difficult argument because anyone can point to mentally unstable people like the shooter* as reasons for why gun access should not be so free. Instead, the NRA laid out plans to introduce a comprehensive “school shield program” led by independent experts. Introducing such a program lets the NRA flip the issue to go on the offense to solve what they have already positioned as the biggest issue – school safety.

NRA MESSAGE #3 – OUR CULTURE OF VIOLENCE IS REALLY TO BLAME FOR MASS SHOOTINGS.
Strategy: Change the bad guy. A topic that has not been getting nearly enough attention is how violent video games and “blood soaked films” are creating a desensitized culture of violence. The last mass shooting was at the opening of a very violent Batman film. In his short talk, Lapierre called this a “race to the bottom” and likened it to pornography. Add to that the media’s coverage of the shooter and how they have turned him into something of a celebrity, and the argument that the real bad guy is media and entertainment (and not guns) is complete.

As I said above, textbook. But closer analysis reveals that these techniques were merely the tip of the iceberg. Behind the scenes there’s somebody who’s as deft with messaging as LaPierre is ham-fisted and alienating at the podium. Deft and borderline sociopathic.

Let me repeat what I said at the outset: Every good recipe for deception begins with an ounce of truth. When we speak truthfully, when we connect the words coming out of our mouths with the reality of the world as the audience perceives it, we establish common ground. We sow credibility. We demonstrate that we’re acquainted with the facts. Saying something overtly true greases the skids for whatever we say next.

LaPierre’s speech, for all its flaws, is a master class in using truth or shared values as a jumping off point for statements that range from deflective to outright dishonesty. I want to walk through some of the key passages, highlighting misdirections and deceptions as I go, and paying special attention to the places where fact goes in service of a lie.

The tone is established in the third paragraph:

How do we protect our children right now, starting today, in a way that we know works?

All we care about is children, he asserts, and he sets up what is to come as being solely concerned with efficacy and efficacy.

How have our nation’s priorities gotten so far out of order? Think about it. We care about our money, so we protect our banks with armed guards. American airports, office buildings, power plants, courthouses — even sports stadiums — are all protected by armed security.

We care about the President, so we protect him with armed Secret Service agents. Members of Congress work in offices surrounded by armed Capitol Police officers.

Yet when it comes to the most beloved, innocent and vulnerable members of the American family — our children — we as a society leave them utterly defenseless, and the monsters and predators of this world know it and exploit it. That must change now!

This is clever. A lot of us think our priorities are out of order (although we might disagree vehemently about the specifics). We do care about money. We do protect these other venues with armed security. We do keep the president under heavy guard. And we do love children. So what’s to argue with?

In what is perhaps this performance’s finest moment, a subtle linkage is established between caring and guns. If you care about something, you protect it. And best way of protecting is to surround it with guns. We have a blatantly emotional appeal masquerading as pure reason, and if you weren’t paying attention LaPierre might, at this juncture, be sounding pretty reasonable.

The truth is that our society is populated by an unknown number of genuine monsters — people so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons that no sane person can possibly ever comprehend them. They walk among us every day. And does anybody really believe that the next Adam Lanza isn’t planning his attack on a school he’s already identified at this very moment?

How many more copycats are waiting in the wings for their moment of fame — from a national media machine that rewards them with the wall-to-wall attention and sense of identity that they crave — while provoking others to try to make their mark?

A dozen more killers? A hundred? More? How can we possibly even guess how many, given our nation’s refusal to create an active national database of the mentally ill?

It’s true – we don’t know how many. And there is every reason, given our history, to assume that there are madmen out there doing precisely what he says. But we would know if we’d … wait, if we’d do what?! There’s so much wrong with the national database idea it’s hard to know where to start, but here are three things to think about:

  • Any number of past perpetrators have been in the system and it hasn’t stopped them in the end. Heck, the guy who killed those firefighters in Rochester had been in prison.
  • Right now, people with mental issues are encouraged to seek help and they know they can do so with the assurance of confidentiality, which is certainly important if you ever hope to have another job. So once you realize that something as simple as seeking relief from depression might ruin your life for good, what are the chances that you take that risk?
  • Finally, LaPierre’s suggestion works fine unless you recall that the 2nd Amendment isn’t the only thing in the Bill of Rights. His idea represents such a radical breach of individual liberty it’s hard to imagine what Constitution he thinks might be left to defend.

Next we get this:

Meanwhile, federal gun prosecutions have decreased by 40% — to the lowest levels in a decade.

Assuming this is accurate, what am I being asked to conclude? That the Feds don’t want to stamp out gun violence? Or are there other reasons? Like enforcement has had an effect and there are fewer guns out there? That what has been rounded up represents the low-hanging fruit? That more resources are now required? That the NRA has done all it can to hamstring the authorities at every turn? Good questions. I’d like to know more, but LaPierre wants me to draw a misdirected conclusion and move on. In cases like this, it’s usually safe to assume that what you aren’t being told works against whomever is talking, because if they could tell you more, they would.

So now, due to a declining willingness to prosecute dangerous criminals, violent crime is increasing again for the first time in 19 years! Add another hurricane, terrorist attack or some other natural or man-made disaster, and you’ve got a recipe for a national nightmare of violence and victimization.

Violent crime is increasing? I know you want me to buy that this is about a “refusal to prosecute,” but by “violent crime” are you referring to crime committed with guns?

Through vicious, violent video games with names like Bulletstorm, Grand Theft Auto, Mortal Kombat and Splatterhouse. And here’s one: it’s called Kindergarten Killers. It’s been online for 10 years. How come my research department could find it and all of yours either couldn’t or didn’t want anyone to know you had found it? Then there’s the blood-soaked slasher films like “American Psycho” and “Natural Born Killers” that are aired like propaganda loops on “Splatterdays” and every day, and a thousand music videos that portray life as a joke and murder as a way of life. And then they have the nerve to call it “entertainment.”

And:

In a race to the bottom, media conglomerates compete with one another to shock, violate and offend every standard of civilized society by bringing an ever-more-toxic mix of reckless behavior and criminal cruelty into our homes — every minute of every day of every month of every year.

A child growing up in America witnesses 16,000 murders and 200,000 acts of violence by the time he or she reaches the ripe old age of 18. And throughout it all, too many in our national media … their corporate owners … and their stockholders … act as silent enablers, if not complicit co-conspirators. Rather than face their own moral failings, the media demonize lawful gun owners, amplify their cries for more laws and fill the national debate with misinformation and dishonest thinking that only delay meaningful action and all but guarantee that the next atrocity is only a news cycle away.

Very true. No doubt. Anybody with a critical bone in his or her body is sympathetic to the idea that we’re overrun with violence in this society. I’m even willing to accept, for a moment, the idea that this is all desensitizing. So, the problem is games and media, right? Well, they have the same games and media in other countries, countries with gun violence rates that are a fraction of ours. What’s the key variable, then?

The goal in this whole sequence is simple and it leverages one of the most powerful instincts in the American mind: either/or. It’s black or white. You can’t have it both ways. You’re with us or against us. The problem is that it simply isn’t true. Sometimes – most times, really – effects do not stem from a single cause, they result from a complex melange of factors. Is it possible that our rash of high-profile gun violence is due, in some measure, to other mediated factors like violent movies and games? Certainly. Would cleaning up those industries help reduce violence? Maybe. But let’s be clear: none of that diminishes the roll played by the wide availability of firearms. It’s not either/or, it’s both/and.

The media call semi-automatic firearms “machine guns” — they claim these civilian semi-automatic firearms are used by the military, and they tell us that the .223 round is one of the most powerful rifle calibers … when all of these claims are factually untrue. They don’t know what they’re talking about!

Which can only mean that a .223 caliber round isn’t sufficient to kill an unarmored child or teacher, right?

The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. Would you rather have your 911 call bring a good guy with a gun from a mile away … or a minute away?

Beautiful false dichotomy here. It asks me to assume that the bad guy has a gun (which is certainly a safe assumption in a world where the NRA is allowed to buy and bully its way to such overwhelming legislative influence, I guess). Now, would you rather be able to defend yourself or not? Well, sure, if I buy your assumption. The problem is that I don’t. The real dichotomy is this: which would you rather face: a bad guy with a gun or a bad guy without a gun?

As for the second part of the equation, are you suggesting that the alternative to addressing our gun problem is a police station within a minute of every home? You understand what is meant by the term “police state,” right?

You know, five years ago, after the Virginia Tech tragedy, when I said we should put armed security in every school, the media called me crazy. But what if, when Adam Lanza started shooting his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School last Friday, he had been confronted by qualified, armed security?

You mean like the armed security guard at Columbine? Also, Virginia Tech had a well-armed police force – are you saying we need armed police in every classroom now?

Is the press and political class here in Washington so consumed by fear and hatred of the NRA and America’s gun owners that you’re willing to accept a world where real resistance to evil monsters is a lone, unarmed school principal left to surrender her life to shield the children in her care? No one — regardless of personal political prejudice — has the right to impose that sacrifice.

There’s so much manipulative misdirection in this little paragraph that’s it’s almost hard to untangle. First, misdirection: those kids were killed by the press and political class in Washington, certainly easy enough targets. Battle between good guns and evil monsters. And if you don’t agree with me, you’re imposing sacrifice on the innocent. My professional compliments to the sociopath who wrote this.

But do know this President zeroed out school emergency planning grants in last year’s budget, and scrapped “Secure Our Schools” policing grants in next year’s budget.

Of course, legislators vote on budgets. I wonder what would happen if I tabbed how Congressional reps voted on these items and then cross-referenced those results with their NRA ratings? Hmmm.

Now, the National Rifle Association knows that there are millions of qualified active and retired police; active, reserve and retired military; security professionals; certified firefighters and rescue personnel; and an extraordinary corps of patriotic, trained qualified citizens to join with local school officials and police in devising a protection plan for every school. We can deploy them to protect our kids now. We can immediately make America’s schools safer — relying on the brave men and women of America’s police force.

Part true, part problematic. Not only an unsubstantiated emotional appeal to our reverence for police, military, firefighters and other “patriotic” and brave citizens (because if you disagree, you aren’t a patriot), but also the invocation of one of the NRA’s favorite words: “trained.” They can’t say hello without helping you understand that a gun is perfectly safe in the hands of a trained citizen (they use some form of the word ten times in this speech alone). There’s no arguing that training is good, of course. Then again, a few months back some highly trained police officers opened fire on a suspect outside the Empire State Building. When the smoke cleared, nine civilians had been hit - all by police fire. LaPierre wants you to believe that a police officer at Sandy Hook would have meant no dead children. Possibly. Or possibly many more.

Our training programs are the most advanced in the world. That expertise must be brought to bear to protect our schools and our children now. We did it for the nation’s defense industries and military installations during World War II, and we’ll do it for our schools today.

LaPierre is now so far over the top that it’s almost impossible not to snark. That armed guard in Mrs. Snodgrass’s class is going to save the day when the Japanese bomb Pleasant Grove Junior High.

If we truly cherish our kids more than our money or our celebrities, we must give them the greatest level of protection possible and the security that is only available with a properly trained — armed — good guy.

“Cherish our children more than our celebrities”? Wait – did I miss where there’s an armed guard on every movie set? Also, again – guns = good guys.

There’ll be time for talk and debate later. This is the time, this is the day for decisive action.

We can’t wait for the next unspeakable crime to happen before we act. We can’t lose precious time debating legislation that won’t work. We mustn’t allow politics or personal prejudice to divide us. We must act now.

First, we establish that debate is bad. So when Congress takes up gun reform, you’ll know. There is an element of truth to the idea that one doesn’t stand around hemming and hawing in the face of a clear and present danger, and he hopes to insinuate that assumption into your thinking. Second, we must act now! He’s trying to turn the urgency around and, as Bhargava explains above, go on the attack. Bad guys are coming right now and every second we refuse to put more guns out there we risk our children, whom we love almost as much as we do Cameron Diaz. I do wonder, though. Several days elapsed between the sandy Hook killings and this press conference. If every second is that critical, why did they wait, in the process risking the lives of countless innocent citizens?

So, how effective was the NRA’s response? Too soon to tell. On the one hand, we just witnessed an absolute case study in how to manage crisis. Whoever crafted the strategy knows his/her stuff, and as my analysis of the LaPierre speech suggests, is willing to pull every switch on the control panel in pursuit of a goal. Whoever is behind this is either a true believer or as malignant a prostitute as the PR industry has ever spawned.

On the other hand, the speech overreached significantly in places, and in doing so threatened to descend into self-parody. Put another way, our evil genius needs to lay off the mustard. Also working against them was LaPierre himself, a walking, talking caricature of a bright-eyed fanatic. It’s bad enough that he simply doesn’t seem to be able to comprehend why people would see guns as part of the problem. What’s worse are his performative skills – anytime you’re in an organizational crisis and you have to put a buffoon up in front of the cameras, you’re in deep trouble no matter how brilliant the script.

In the end, the NRA has been hit, but the extent of the wound remains to be seen. Recent events have been, in some respects, a dog and pony show. Ultimately, my opinion doesn’t matter, nor does yours. The ones that matter are those of our legislators, and they get a good bit of money from pro-gun interests. There are a thousand ways for Congress to put on a concerned face and look very intent about getting something done, only to emerge later, fingers pointing in all directions, bemoaning that as hard as they tried, this was the best they could do. The best, of course, then becomes one more ineffectual, “compromised” gun law that the NRA can one day point to, saying “see, gun laws don’t work.” It’s quite the entertaining bit of kabuki when you think about it.

If you’re hoping to see meaningful action taken, you do have one important thing on your side: As much as they hate it, the National Rifle Association has now become the spokesman of record for mass murder in America. If you need proof, this very press conference was it. Madman kills a bunch of children and teachers. NRA forced to call a press conference defending itself.

Sandy Hook may or may not prove to be the tipping point (my money says not), but when you work in PR you accept that sometimes there’s not much you can do. The architect of last week’s response did about all that could have been hoped for, but when push came to shove, was simply outgunned.

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