The NRA’s Response to Newtown: A Lesson in How NOT to Stage a Press Conference

We’re not a public relations firm per se, but we do a fair amount of PR type work for clients, from writing press releases, to occasionally staging press conferences. The NRA’s recent press event in response to the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut was a classic lesson in how NOT to stage a media event.

From the tone of NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre’s speech to the physical setup of the stage, they did almost nothing right from a public relations perspective. And no, this is NOT another attack on WHAT the NRA said. But more of a review about what WASN’T said, and the combative tenor of the event.

But first, I need to point out that I am not a gun owner and therefore (obviously) not an NRA member. In fact, I’ve never shot a weapon and only held a firearm once in my entire life. But I also have no real beef with the NRA, its members or how it does business. I grew up in a town filled with people that love hunting and almost every family I knew (except ours) owned multiple firearms and used them often, either at gun ranges or while hunting.

But back to the NRA’ press conference.  In my opinion, the most shocking thing about it wasn’t what was written and said, but it was how it was said. LaPierre looked and sounded like a General preparing to go into battle. His second sentence in the speech was:

Out of respect for those grieving families, and until the facts are known, the NRA has refrained from comment. While some have tried to exploit tragedy for political gain, we have remained respectfully silent.

Really? Is that why you were silent? Until more facts were known? Let’s face it, almost no new facts have emerged since the days immediately following the crime. They were silent because of the beating they were taking in the press. And speaking of the press, LaPierre said this:

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?

That national media machine did what it’s supposed to do, cover a story that shocked a nation, if not the world. A story not unlike the horrific shootings in Norway in 2011, which also involved children. Never mind that the NRA could easily be considered an enabler of any type of copycat crime related to Newtown. This brings us to perhaps the NRA and Mr. LaPierre’s biggest PR mistake. Blaming the media for the event your press conference is addressing!

How did the NRA think that was going to go over in the press? Did they think anyone in the media was going to nod their head in agreement? Forget your opinion about either of the quotes noted above. Forget my interpretation of them. From a PR perspective, you don’t explain your unwillingness to comment on an event by claiming your opponents are being exploitive, especially when it comes to something involving young children. You likewise do NOT suggest complicity with the very people covering your event! It’s just going to piss the press (and just about everyone else) off.

This nation’s obsession with firearms and gun owner’s argument that gun control advocates are trying to take away their second amendment rights is widely seen as incomprehensible by people in almost every other part of the world. Doesn’t that say something to the NRA? What if we fervently held onto the literal interpretation of other parts of our constitution, like civil rights, or the right to vote? If we did, women wouldn’t be able to vote and there would still be slavery!

The NRA needs to remember that it’s called “public relations.” That means ALL of the public. Not just your members and surrogates.