If your public relations campaign involves going after children who have survived a mass shooting at their school that killed 17 of their classmates and teachers and injured many more, then you have already sold your soul for political gain. Go home.
Two weeks ago, I wrote that the alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election through social media would be taught in the future as the biggest PR debacle in history. But then the National Rifle Association (NRA) in the US replied, “Hold my beer.”
On 14 February, Nikolas Cruz, 19, entered a high school in Parkland, Florida, with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and shot students and teachers. Cruz was later arrested and then confessed to the crime. It was the latest occurrence of the epidemic of mass shootings in a country that has far more guns than anyone else and an unhealthy obsession with them.
The surviving students are young enough to have known and used social media for their entire conscious lives. Within days – and likely while still dealing with the unresolved trauma – they became activists who, among doing other activities, are now using social media in a massive, nationwide PR campaign.
The teenagers created organizational accounts on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, will hold a March for Our Lives protest in Washington, D.C., this month, and have been meeting with local government officials to advocate for more gun control.
They are not messing around
The boldest statements have come from individual students talking directly to government officials, the news media, and NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch:
- An anonymous student retweeted a statement by US president Donald Trump with this comment (that has since been deleted): “I don’t want your condolences you fucking piece of shit, my friends and teachers were shot. Multiple of my fellow classmates are dead. Do something instead of sending prayers. Prayers won’t fix this. But gun control will prevent it from happening again.” The tweet had received almost 78,000 retweets.
- Emma Gonzalez gave this speech at a rally in Florida, vowing that her school would be the last mass shooting in the US. “This was not a mental health issue!” she shouted. “He would not have harmed that many students with a knife... The people in the government who were voted into power are lying to us, and us kids seem to be the only ones who notice and are prepared to call BS!” That single linked share of her speech linked above got 60,000 retweets.
- At a town hall event that was broadcast nationwide on CNN, a student asked Florida senator Marco Rubio if he would refuse future NRA campaign donations. Gonzalez asked Loesch if the organization supports making it more difficult to obtain semi-automatic weapons. The crowd was openly hostile and jeered at Rubio and Loesch for their vague non-answers to the straightforward yes-or-no questions.
- Sarah Chadwick tweeted: “We should change the names of AR-15s to ‘Marco Rubio’ because they are so easy to buy.”
- “We’ve had enough of thoughts and prayers,” another student said in a speech. “This is to every lawmaker out there: no longer can you take money from the NRA, no longer can you fly under the radar doing whatever it is that you want to do – because we are coming after you. We are coming after each and every single one of you.”
(American universities: please give these kids full scholarships for political science, journalism, or marketing degrees.)
When it comes to my marketing columns, I am politically neutral. In my prior journalism career, I saw bullshit from liberals and conservatives. But in politics in the US, UK, and elsewhere today, the vast majority of the propaganda and bot-promoted fake news has been on the right. And I go wherever the bullshit is.
The unprecedented fierceness of the students’ activism likely caught the NRA off-guard. The organization did not see this coming and has been overreacting in response. In increasing order of despicableness, here is what the far-right PR machine in general and the NRA specifically has been saying.
‘The students are political pawns’
At a conservative event after the incident, NRA chief executive Wayne LaPierre said that the shooting is being used to promote a “socialist” agenda. Rush Limbaugh, a US radio host who has been one of the most influential figures in the conservative movement since the 1990s, said in reference to the students, “the minute they bash the NRA, it’s politics.”
Gateway Pundit, a far-right opinion blog, wrote that student David Hogg “has been astonishingly articulate and highly skilled at propagating a new anti-Conservative/anti-Trump narrative behind the recent school shooting. Few have seen this type of rapid media play before, and when they have it has come from well-trained political operatives and MSM commentators.”
‘The students are crisis actors’
By one week after the shooting, massive numbers of posts had appeared on social media networks with accusations such as that the activist students were paid “crisis actors” – in other words, people who were not involved in the incident but were getting compensation to say that they were.
A Florida Republican party member made the false accusation. The response from the students is here. One student also blasted Donald Trump Jr. as "immature, rude, and inhumane" after he "liked" such conspiracy theory tweets.
‘It was a false flag operation’
Alex Jones, the far-right conspiracy theorist who runs the website Infowars, suggested that the school shooting was a “false flag” orchestrated by anti-gun groups – in other words, a fake event that was manufactured to serve a political purpose. (For the record, he thinks that almost all mass shootings are “false flag” events of one type or another.)
Worst of all, several of the students have been receiving death threats from people who they have described as “NRA cultists.”
Media Matters for America has collected a bunch of criticisms of the students.
Here’s how voters and brands are responding
Now, my point is not to be political. The issues involved are best suited for public policy experts. Here, I want to discuss the PR optics – and the optics are terrible for the NRA.
The response to the efforts for more gun control, like the NRA’s response to other incidents in the past, could have focused on the constitutional legality of such laws and the practical effectiveness of those measures. That would have been reasonable.
But after a bunch of traumatised students who have survived a horrific event used their social media savvy to push for gun control, the NRA and the far-right machine attacked them personally. And you never win by attacking children. Anyone with any knowledge of crisis communications – and anyone with an ounce of humanity – should know that.
It seems that the NRA is treating this issue as an existential threat – and it might be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Read what film producer Adam Best tweeted:
My parents, who live in Missouri and have voted Republican their entire lives, now say they won't vote for anybody who takes a penny from the NRA.
This is a real movement and it was started by kids. That's why desperate jerks on the far right have resorted to smearing teenagers.
— Adam Best (@adamcbest) February 28, 2018
The NRA’s PR response has been so heavy-handed that many brands in the US have been cutting their associations as well. As my colleague Doug Zanger has reported in The Drum, brands including Hertz, Avis, Norton, MetLife, Lifelock, Delta Airlines and United Airlines have ended their partnerships with the NRA. (In a related column, Betsy Henning, chief executive of the creative agency Aha, looks at the pros and cons of splitting from the organization.)
Walmart and Dick’s Sporting Goods announced that they will no longer sell guns to people under the age of 21 and will stop selling assault-style rifles altogether. (Think about that: until now, someone aged 20 could have bought a semi-automatic rifle but not a pint in a pub.)
Scott Galloway is calling it a “consumer-led revolution.” Even more bad news for the NRA may come out after I filed this column late last week.
But it gets even worse.
In crisis communications, here are the six main types of responses:
Apologize, tell the complete truth as quickly as possible, and get it over with. If Bill Clinton had disclosed his relationship with Monica Lewinsky in the late 1990s at the very beginning of the scandal, he probably would have escaped impeachment. But the PR spin and political maneuvering only made it worse. To repeat an observation from Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal in the 1970s, it is not the act that gets you – it is the cover-up.
Deny that a crisis exists by presenting your side of the story. Trump seems to like this one. He constantly tweets things like “No collusion!” and then gives his counterarguments.
Excuse the crisis by minimizing your responsibility. In this method, sometimes the blame is shifted onto the victims as during the Firestone tire scandal. The company initially blamed customers for “not maintaining their tires correctly or operating their vehicles in extreme environments.”
Ingratiate yourself with the affected party. Burlington Coat Factory in the US donated $100,000 to the Humane Society after the organization found that the company was selling parkas manufactured in China that were trimmed with dog hair.
Take corrective action to repair the damage and prevent future incidents. When Google faced the brand safety scandal last year, almost every statement from company spokespersons included the phrase “we need to do better.” I doubt that is a coincidence. (Still, I would much rather see Google prevent problems from occurring rather than apologize for them after the fact.)
Attack whoever is causing the crisis as well as the person or organization’s logic and reasoning. This is what the NRA is doing – but it is the wrong tactic in this case.
The organization could have accepted the boycotts with grace but instead responded with organizational suicide by calling the actions a “shameful display of political and civic cowardice.” I am sure that any remaining brand partners loved that. It is generally not a good idea to insult those who give you money.
But by lashing out at anyone and everyone – especially children – in DEFCON 1 attack mode, the NRA is resembling a drowning man who is flailing for anything he can reach. At worst, the organization resembles a drug addict who attacks anyone who is critical or trying to help as his life falls apart. It is terrible optics – especially at a time when National Public Radio has also uncovered alleged deep ties between the NRA and Russia.
The best PR strategy
The best PR move would have been to admit that the organization was wrong and endorse reasonable gun control measures such as an adoption of age limits and a renewal of the expired US ban on assault weapons.
But even one tiny move against even one type of assault weapon is too much for the NRA, which today comes across as nutty and paranoid as Alex Jones and seemingly aligning itself with certain deplorable cretins on the internet.
Time is not on the NRA’s side – the gun control effort is growing as quickly as the movement against sexual harassment did last year. As a start, the organization needs a completely new PR plan before it is swept into oblivion. Rubio, for his part, should decline all NRA contributions. And Loesch definitely needs to stop making dark ads that provoke conflict and division.
The US will move forward, with or without the NRA. The kids are alright.
“They messed with the wrong school,” student Cameron Kasky tweeted. “Douglas is a school filled with thousands of leaders. Leaders who know that despite what happened, we’re lucky we go to Douglas. Leaders who take action the right way. Leaders who will rebuild the world that failed us.”
The Promotion Fix is an exclusive biweekly column for The Drum contributed by global marketing and technology keynote speaker Samuel Scott, a former journalist, consultant, and director of marketing in the high-tech industry. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Scott is based out of Tel Aviv, Israel.