Guns And PR
Author’s Disclaimer: I am not a member of the NRA. I do not work for nor have ever worked for any anti-second-amendment companies. I have shot guns many, many times, and will do so in the future, I can talk quasi-eloquently about gun brands and guns themselves. I have friends and have lost friends in the armed forces. I am pro-registration, pro-legislation, and I see no reason that a normal person’s right to own an assault rifle is more important than the lowering of human deaths. This is a complex issue, one that even opening a discussion about I have seen polarize friends and families. I grew up in London, England and have lived in America 8 years.
I’m not going to repeat the exact details of what happened on June 14 2016. They were horrifying. 49 people innocent people died because a man who was previously on the terrorist watchlist was able to purchase a weapon. They were shot to death with an AR-15, a kind of assault rifle that’s so easily available in states that it’s at first comical and then terrifying to your core. Whether or not he was actually a terrorist, or simply a man with an axe to grind and a murderous intent, is of little value to those who have lost and those they have lost.
I’m also the guy who hates any and all “how can we find a PR angle?” pieces, but this one is, after a phonecall with a reporter, one that actually might need discussing. It’s terrifyingly polarized, and even I’m scared typing this out that I may have said something critically wrong, despite how many times I’ve read it.
Most of us are lucky in that we get to pitch dumb things like apps and gadgets. We don’t have to pitch weapons, we don’t have to pitch silencers, we don’t have to pitch things that aid in the taking of or take lives.
But some of us do. In fact, shortly after the San Bernardino shooting – the same day, if I’m correct within an hour or so – a PR firm I won’t name form-pitched out a silencer company. The pitch was simple:
Subject: Gun Manufacturer Releases Fall Fashion Line
[company], the leading silencer manufacturer is known for its social campaigns and dynamic videos. To continue promoting support for a social culture among 2nd amendment supporters, suppressor owners and hunters alike – [company] will introduce its Fall Fashion Line.
Their explanation was that it was a form pitch, sent by an intern, already cued up.
They had no answer to my simple question: why would you take on this client?
If you don’t know what a silencer is, it attaches to a gun and significantly reduces the sound it makes when firing, thus making the person who shot it (and the actual firing of said weapon) hard to hear and identify. The stupid, wrong (if you’re reading this and disagree, I don’t care) response is sometimes “but I’m using it for hunting.” Yes, there are military uses. I’m discussing civilians here. They’re not legal in some states. In some they are legal for both citizen use and hunting.
But this is a firm, with I’m imagining over a million dollars a year in revenue, profiting off of the proliferation and intentional fame of a device, attached to a gun, existing for the injury and possible murder of others.
The politicization of gun rights has overrun the NRA, and pretty much anything you find online to do with guns is focused on either “THIS GUN SHOOTS THE GOOD BULLETS AT THE BAD MAN, JUST HOW YOU LIKE IT,” or “THE NOSFERATU OBAMA IS COMING FOR THE GUNS.”
The problem is that the PR for guns continues to drum-beat this ultra-macho feeling that the gun gives you the power. This is understandable, but this never changes – there are two gears, chest-thumping because the gun is so good, or angry flag-waving, saying that taking the guns are bad. What PR is doing is binary and stupid in the gun industry. The NRA is by far the worst.
The NRA’s PR Messaging Gauntlet – What Do They Even Want?
In the days following the Orlando shooting, the NRA’s website proudly displayed a piece called “The AR-15: Americans’ Best Defense Against Terror and Crime.” The piece is about a Navy SEAL or somesuch business and how AR-15s are good at shooting. The connotations, the messaging, the tone is such that while they can defend and say “oh, we mean uh, the soldiers have it,” if they are really pushed. But read that and tell me – seriously – that it doesn’t suggest that it’s An American’s best defense. You. An American. Your best defense against crime. Terrorism. Heart strings are pulled, the AR-15 placed on a pedestal marked “not today, SCUM!”
The NRA News repeatedly retweets pro-second-amendment statements, mobilizing obfuscated, hypocritical statements about its future. I won’t dig into their tweets too far because my brain hurts. Nevertheless, their firm Ackerman McQueen (at least I was able to follow that trail to 2013 – I’m not sure when) sure seems to have some direction that deviates from the overall message of the NRA.
Said message is, from their own website:
“The National Rifle Association is America’s longest-standing civil rights organization. Together with our more than five million members, we’re proud defenders of history’s patriots and diligent protectors of the Second Amendment.”
When you Google them, something else comes up under the link to their website:
“[The NRA’s] Purposes and objectives include protecting the right to keep and bear arms, furthering the shooting sports, marksmanship and safety training, and the promotion of hunter safety.”
So, which is it? Who knows. But look at the goals here, compare them between NRA.com (so the first that people would see if they went to the website) and Google’s results (what they’d see if they googled “NRA”), and see what issues there are.
- “Civil Rights Organization”
- The NRA is very good at messaging around vague terminology that portrays gun owners as martyrs. This is step 1.
- The defending history’s patriots.
- Okay, cool. But what about today’s patriots? Is that part of it? Or just history’s? Are we part of history? What are we defending – their legacy? Their respect? Their right to bear arms?
- (DIligently) protecting the second amendment.
- The Second Amendment reads that “a well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” This is an issue so large and one that I am not qualified to break down. Basically, the NRA’s smart to stand by it because it is effectively one sentence that many can read in many different ways. I didn’t say ethical, I said smart. This again sticks to the point of step 1: uh, they’re not an organization that puts hundreds of thousands of dollars into lobbying to keep guns readily available, they’re a civil rights organization.
Their relevance is that if the NRA had any part in making this statement, they’re already
- “The right to keep and bear arms.”
- Been there, talked about it, this can be read as “so you can still use guns” all the way to “give me an AR-15 at birth and let me have it inside a Target.”
- “Furthering the shooting sports, marksmanship and safety training [emphasis mine]”
- Going through the last two weeks of the NRA’s tweets, I couldn’t find one on shooting sports or safety training. I found this tweet about long-range marksmanship retweeted. This tweet featured a dude shooting a gun with a silencer. This retweet was the only one I could find that could be considered related to marksmanship as it’s about hunting.
- Unless I missed one (if I did, seriously, I’ll add it), I don’t think I saw one on safety training, I don’t think I saw one on shooting sports.
- Just so we’re clear here: That’s no tweets on gun safety.
I don’t know their agency, nor do I know their PR chair, nor do I even know roughly what their goals are. Their tweets are but a small sample of the overall message of the NRA – their website features a menu with Politics & legislation, programs, news, publications, ring of freedom, membership, membership benefits, events, foundation, museum, store, about the NRA, privacy, careers and regional promotions. Under these categories I could not find a single use of the word safety, not even under “programs.” I am 100% sure there’re safety courses somewhere. They aren’t prominent and they aren’t there.
At present, I can’t categorize those serving the NRA as acting in the best interests of actual humans if they are willingly allowing the NRA to continue to promote themselves in this manner. There are distinct politics in play, I get it, but let’s make something really abundantly fucking clear that’s unrelated to what side of the debate you are on:
- The NRA isn’t trying to promote safe gun ownership, despite their statement. They have a separate safety page and I do not know how you’d get to it from the main NRA page.
- The NRA is promoting a culture of gung-ho jingoism where somehow the idea of air rifles being “highly regulated” in Scotland is a nightmare, where people don’t want to be told what weapons to use in self-defense because obviously, man, you need 50 rounds if someone breaks into your home. Not that a .223 bullet shot from an AR-15 can’t easily lodge itself in someone’s chest with one shot to center mass or anything so a shower of, say, 30 of them couldn’t rip a person open like paper.
- The NRA’s entire press release trail has historically focused on one issue – the second amendment. Not gun safety, not gun education, not anything unless it’s brow-beating whatever wire service they use with endless streams of “we beat the bad people who want to take the guns.”
- Now note, they liberally use the phrase “safety.” But we’ll get there in a second.
To me the NRA seems focused on one thing, and if that’s what they want to do I wish they’d just fucking stick to it instead of using vague wording and PR obfuscation.
So What Can PR Actually Do?
If the NRA – and seriously, if they tried I’d have some begrudging respect – wants to help here, without the second amendment even being discussed, there’s a clear answer. The following is the only counsel I think the NRA should be following in their social media presence, because the rest is just a clusterfuck:
49 people just died, and everyone is calling for a really small movement on your part to back the idea that a terrorist watchlist should stop you getting a gun. Considering how ardently you target an audience that loves to call liberals weak, you’re being pissy little babies over something that literally has no effect on you. It would stop a potential terrorist buying a gun. Come on. Anyway.
Take out the endless stream of anti-Hillary, pro-2A tweets, and replace them with a week-long tweet-fest about gun safety. Say, if you’re worried about your fans suggesting that you’ve gone “all liberal” on them, that this isn’t a political statement other than that, as you believe guns are a right, you should also promote their safe use so that people don’t get killed.
I have more ideas too, but they apply to all gun manufacturers.
How To Do This Semi-Right
This isn’t a piece about whether it’s right or wrong to own a gun beyond what I said in my disclaimer, so I won’t go into that. I will get to the ethics of representation, but if you’re repping a gun manufacturer, or anything gun related, the best thing you can do – for both the world and your own image, but really the world – is to appeal to your audience to remember gun safety. If you don’t want to promote these things, yeah, you’re a big asshole. If you think a gun is a right, then you should treat it like a car – you do everything you can both within the law and within the ethics of your own industry to promote its safe and appropriate use.
Furthermore, the industry is entrenched in this weird world where guns can’t be fun (at the range, or for hunting – this isn’t me saying this is fun for you or me, it’s that they can be, for someone, I hate disclaimers), that they are either there to shoot THE SCUMBAG as he comes into your home to steal your Led Zeppelin CDs or protect your civil rights from some sort of government that comes to take your civil liberties. Sure, dig into Guns & Ammo and you’ll find these things – but it’s as if these companies…don’t want to promote anything other than the sickly idea that you’re gonna be the hero. Their Facebook pages love to post gun reviews, or gun pictures, or honor veterans. Rarely do they discuss safety, or nailing a target at 250FT with iron sights by some dude in Iowa, which would be both cool and not violent (depending on how you view guns, that is), or training.
Every mass-shooting and god, does writing that make me physically sick, you need to go through the basics of gun safety. Hell, every month, for a week or at least a day, you should go through such things as:
- How to purchase and secure a gun safe for all budgets, including storage of weapons and ammunition.
- How to secure a trigger lock.
- Range safety measures, including but not limited to keeping the muzzle down range.
- Promoting training measures for any and all weapons, including self-defense rules. Note, the reasoning behind this is because, yes, their audience is going to probably want to use their gun, and it’s best that they do so properly. Even if you disagree with said use.
- Discussing the safe transport of weaponry.
- Discussing the safe methods of concealed carry (you may not like it, but hell, I’d rather if someone got a CCW they were at least able to god damn understand how to not shoot someone by accident).
- Discussing the actual ramifications of owning a gun.
There’s an argument against some of this that we’d be training some sort of future militia, or future terrorist, or future murderer. The sad truth is that without any education they are still out there, and they will still hurt people until the laws get in their way.
Even if you are the furthest thing from a gun rights advocate, you want anyone owning a gun to be as safe with it as possible. If you are a gun rights advocate, working in PR, or anywhere really, if you truly want to make a change quickly – look to create as many safe gun owners as possible. If somehow you walk into somewhere and that person has their gun and the barrel is pointed even near a person, even if its action is open and there’s not a single bullet near it, ask them to turn the barrel away.
The Ethical Issue
Ethically, I don’t accept gun or gun-related clients. I’d talk to a pro-registration client, but I’d need to be 100% sure I was capable, and my team was capable, of working for them. I don’t know what it’d look like.
What I do know is that it’s wholly unethical to represent any gun-related organization without focusing heavily on education, safety and the ramifications of owning a weapon. Sig Sauer’s own website says that “SIG SAUER® world renowned firearms are the weapons of choice for many of the premier global military, law enforcement and commercial users.” Emphasis mine again.
The point is, they sell weapons. Gun manufacturers sell weapons. As a result, they should be treating their PR strategy, whatever that is, to promote their thing (which is their job, agree with it or not) but also to retain their responsibility to the public by making sure they are well-educated in its use.
However, a quick google of “sig sauer press release safety” came up with this as the first result. The “shut the fuck up when a mass shooting happens” response is admirable only in its ability to not get pilloried by the public, but any time this happens, every manufacturer, if they have the fucking balls to admit something horrible could happen with a weapon, should put out a thing saying they are sorry that X people died, and that every gun owner, regardless of political affiliation, should remember key safety features.
Yes, these are ideas could be crocodile tears from a company that may not care – I’m not even accusing them of that. They may truly not know. They may truly care but not have intelligent counsel.
The point is they aren’t doing it.
Ethically, if someone thinks it’s okay to represent a gun company, which is their choice, and happens, and you will never stop it happening, the only response in the face of tragedy is education, if they are not willing to stand with legislation. And their job, beyond that, is the continuous education and discussion with their followers and fans and any and all gun owners.
If you promote companies that make things like silencers to civilians – things that have no real purpose other than to make it easier to cause human harm – just go to hell. Ah, forget I said that, you’re on the way already.
If you disagree, I don’t know what to tell you. This isn’t like a monitor or a keyboard. It’s not like if someone doesn’t get how to use a keyboard or an app they’ll have a gaping hole in their chest, one that will likely permanently harm or kill them. Your intent may be to sell more machines to deliver, with speed and power, objects that are intended to cause damage, but your duty to humanity is to make sure, as best you can, that you’re also promoting how to use them safely.
And no, your vacuous, backward analogy of “well car manufacturers don’t do that!” is irrelevant. To quote my friend Phil Broughton, “the good counter-point to this argument is the manufacturer’s intent. Yes, cars may kill but no manufacturer makes a proud statement of their vehicle’s performance in pedestrian collision or Chevrolet ROADMASTER(tm) Roadkill Traction Correction technology.”
The problem with the world we’re in is no matter how terrible or volatile or dangerous a thing is, there will always be someone out there to promote it. The PR industry can’t pretend it doesn’t represent weaponry. It can’t deny the damage that guns have done to people. It can’t deny that many of these companies are ill-represented and should be doing things differently.’
Or we can keep plugging our ears and pretend there isn’t an issue.
Ed Zitron is the CEO of EZPR, a San Francisco and New York based public relations firm. He wrote the best-selling This Is How You Pitch and has been named one of Business Insider’s top 50 PR People in technology three years running, which is why he mentioned it in the piece. His next book, Fire Your Publicist, will be out when he feels like it, also as an audiobook read by James Frain.