NRA botched its own security measures and message during a high-stakes press conference, PR experts say
The National Rifle Association press conference Friday fundamentally misjudged the national mood in the wake of the Newtown shootings, crisis management consultants said, with one expert calling it "the worst public relations disaster since Tiger Woods."
"They just lost the average American, who might be a hunter and who might own a gun but also believes that children should be safe in schools," Howard Bragman, a veteran publicist and vice chairman of Reputation.com, told TheWrap. "It was absolutely tone-deaf about the discussions that are going on out there."
The NRA has found itself on the defensive after the shootings at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school last week left 26 people dead and sparked calls for tighter gun restrictions. In the aftermath of the killings, President Barack Obama called for "meaningful action" on the issue of school-shootings and set up a gun task force led by Vice President Joe Biden.
Stakes for America's top gun advocate were clearly high, but experts claim that NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre did his organization no great service with his public comments. His main message was not one of sympathy for the victims. Rather, it was that the gun-rights lobby is not interested in having a discussion about any legislation that will tighten restrictions.
"It's only going to get worse for them," Richard Laermer, CEO of RLM Public Relations and a crisis management consultant, told TheWrap. "He had to strike a conciliatory tone, and he didn't. I think the NRA just gave the president ammo to use against them."
Instead of trying to find middle ground, LaPierre called for a national database of the mentally ill and also said the NRA would create a free "model school shield" program to increase security at campuses across the country. That initiative would put more armed guards in schools.
"Why is the idea of a gun good when it's used to protect the president of our country or our police, but bad when it's used to protect our children in our schools?" he said.
The blame, he argued, lies primarily with violent video games, television and films and with the media frenzy that surrounds mass shootings.
That wasn't the message the NRA should have been delivering so soon after the shocking killings, said Dr. Larry Barton, an expert on workplace violence.
"They had an opportunity to say this is unacceptable, and the shooting of children is not just a tragedy, it is unacceptable," Barton told TheWrap.
Some of the confusion over the NRA's conference may have had to do with the fact that LaPierre was speaking not to the general public but to the group's 4 million members, argues Mike Sitrick, chairman of Sitrick and Company and one of the country's leading crisis management experts.
"It's not about what the public wants," he said. "Their members want someone who is going to stick up for their right to bear arms."
However, he disagreed with the decision to hold a news conference, instead of simply issuing a written statement. Doing so, Sitrick argued, injected the organization deeper into the furor over gun violence.
"At this moment in time, almost anything they say is a no-win, so why enter the debate now?" Sitrick said. "Why not just issue a statement, a compassionate statement, that touches on their position very carefully and then gets out and does it in writing?"
Moreover, crisis experts argue that the attempt to shift the blame to the media smacked of deflection.
"That may have been most wrong thing he did," Laermer said. "This is not the 'Dark Knight' shooting in Aurora. It's so left field of Hollywood that the fact that he talked about blood-soaked film made the stake he set in the ground seem awfully wobbly."
Also not helping the NRA's case that the major takeaway from last week's mass-slaughter was a need for tighter security measures and schools was the fact that LaPierre's remarks were interrupted by a protester holding up a banner that blocked him from view and declared, "NRA Killing Our Kids."
"The greatest irony is that they were talking about security and how they were the ones who would help fix the problem, and they couldn't handle security at their own news conference," Bragman said. "It only reinforces how complex this issue really is."