Let’s check in: Six weeks into the New Year, and upward of 18 school shootings have not caused the leadership of the National Rifle Association a flicker—or tweet—of doubt. Not to mention the 900-plus dead and injured following last October’s assault on concertgoers in Las Vegas.
Yet, there’s no denying that the latest mass shooting, carried out on Valentine’s Day against high school students and teachers in Parkland, Florida, has sounded a clarion call, and society’s norms are once again on the march.
And where goes society, so go marketers.
So far at least 20 national and global brands have courageously (or perhaps foolishly?) severed ties with the NRA. The list is long and impressive; it includes United and Delta Airlines, half a dozen rental-car firms including Hertz and Avis Budget Group, and insurance giant MetLife. Just recently Dick’s Sporting Goods said it would no longer sell assault-style rifles, nor would it sell any gun to anyone under 21 years of age. And last week, Larry Fink, chief executive of BlackRock, the world’s largest investment management company, sent a letter putting gun manufacturers on notice, seeking to “understand their response” to the Parkland shooting.
Even so, marketers need to keep in mind that there are at least as many detractors as there are supporters, so brands are smart to proceed with care.
So how does a chief executive, CMO, or agencies advising clients, know which is the smart way to go? This is where corporate social responsibility comes into play. While CSR has been around for decades, marketers and boardrooms are now turning in droves to consider their companies’ stances on everything from human rights to the environment. And it’s no secret people are starting to expect that the companies they support also align with their values.
You’re on the right track to part ways with the NRA if any of these are true:
1. You detect a charade. Let’s face it, the NRA’s affiliation program isn’t about the lousy 10 percent discount you offer; it was always designed so that they could do exactly what they’re doing now-- use cheap PR tactics in an attempt to intimidate you into silent complicity when the heat finally, and inevitably, got turned up on them.
2. You support the Second Amendment. Leaders who truly value all the freedoms our Founding Fathers gave us, including the ones about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, can help restore rational discourse on the topic by injecting sound arguments and associating with reasonable groups and people. Remember that not even the US Supreme Court believes assault weapons are protected by the Second Amendment. You are in good company when you agree with the highest court in the land.
3. Your lobbyist told you not to. If there’s one thing the last election cycle taught us, it’s that many lobbyists are woefully out of touch with what’s going on with the electorate, and often lack basic insight into what’s going on with the legislators you pay them to understand.
4. Your company does not have a material interest in assault weapons and accessories. Good corporate responsibility is grounded in engaging on issues that are relevant to your business. If shooting guns isn’t how you make money, you don’t gain – or lose – much by associating with those whose business is guns.
5. Your company does have a material interest in assault weapons and accessories. Today’s corporate responsibility calls on companies to not only neutralize negative, but to seek out ways to actually generate positive impact in the communities they serve. It’s past time to admit that the NRA is dead wrong about assault weapons and age restrictions. The real leader will move now to shift the narrative in favor of a better future.
Breaking up with the NRA might be a bad move if any of these look too familiar:
1. You got a lot of email and your Twitter feed blew up. You’ll want more than public pressure to stand on if you lean in to controversy. True purpose and authentic values are deeply rooted in an organization’s culture. Figure out what your company’s purpose is and how it relates to the issue at hand before going out on a limb.
2. You’re new to the C-suite, and you want to make a mark. Rash action derived from personal passion can turn good intentions into a PR nightmare for your company, regardless of your title. Best to funnel your energy here into building coalition among your peers, and enter the fray as a team.
3. You’re hoping to distract from a recent (or rising) storm. Caught up in a #MeToo moment? Don’t think you can whitewash a stumble on one issue by showing up all leader-like on another. Keep your focus on the situation at hand. If it’s important, the emerging one will still be there when you’re able to tackle something more.
The NRA looks increasingly like an autocratic institution out of touch with even its own membership. Their dangerous position on military-grade weaponry is something few – if any – brands benefit from being associated with today, and momentum against them is accelerating. Time is short for leaders who hope to gain by getting in front of this life-saving issue.
Betsy Henning is chief executive and founder of Aha, a creative agency based in Vancouver, Washington