Earlier this year, Fortune magazine declared the National Rifle
Association (NRA) the most powerful non-governmental force in
Bill Powers, director of communications for the 130-year-old
organization, is awfully proud of that; he's even happy to take a large
share of the credit.
But today he's a little irked over a different survey: PRWeek's PR Jobs
From Hell. On that list, his job ranked only third. "I was disappointed
that we got beat by the pornography industry," he laughs. "Do they even
He laughs because he knows the image his colleagues in the PR industry
have of him: a beleaguered, embattled man spending his days surrounded
by gun nuts, feverishly defending murderers and high school killers to
an unbelieving liberal press.
Think again. Powers' comfortable office sits high atop the NRA's
palatial national headquarters in Fairfax, VA, a 20-minute, tree-lined
drive from Washington, DC.
And the last time a high school student opened fire on his classmates,
Powers' phone didn't even ring. "Most members of the media now are
realizing that these terrible school tragedies really don't have much to
do with lawful firearm ownership," he explains.
According to Powers, who is hardly a firearms fanatic (he claims he'd
just as soon shoot a round of golf as a gun), his job is about as fun as
PR gets. Why? Most PR practitioners are there to put out fires; he's
there to start them.
He offers an example from last year's election: around March 2000, NRA
decision makers wanted to reframe the debate regarding firearms in
The Clinton-Gore administration was busy talking about the need for new
gun laws. But as far as the NRA was concerned, the administration wasn't
doing a very good job of enforcing the laws that already existed.
"Federal prosecutions were way down, yet they kept calling for more
restrictions," remembers Powers.
So he and the other NRA execs brainstormed ways they could drive the
debate in a different direction. What they came up with was this: send
NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre onto ABC's This Week armed with the message that
Clinton was "willing to accept a certain level of killing to further his
What the NRA meant was that Clinton barely enforced gun laws, because
every time another high-profile shooting death hit the airwaves, it
allowed Clinton to call for tighter gun laws, thereby placating his
The consequences were fierce. The remark sparked a rhetorical battle
with the White House, as the president himself denounced the
organization and its "smear tactics." Even Republican presidential
candidates Pat Buchanan and George W. Bush said LaPierre had gone too
Not in Powers' estimation. "For two or three weeks, it was intensive
media warfare with the White House, and we were gaining 100,000 members
a day," he reminisces.
"The response was just incredible. We got that issue focused on the lack
of prosecution versus more restrictions, which is right where we wanted
to be going into the election."
Not every day at the NRA is quite so thrilling. Powers' responsibilities
include fielding the large number of interview requests his organization
gets and coordinating press appearances for people like Charlton Heston,
the NRA's unpaid president, chief spokesperson, and
"One of the classiest people I've ever met," says Powers. "The
quintessential gentleman. He's cool."
Powers has an in-house staff of six to handle the day-to-day work. The
Mercury Group, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the NRA's advertising agency
of record (and Powers' former employer) Ackerman McQueen, is on retainer
to provide PR counsel. After the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School
in Colorado, Mercury was given a seat at the table to decide what to do
about the NRA's annual convention - scheduled to begin just 10 days
later in nearby Denver (it was canceled).
The NRA's arsenal
Powers has a mighty marketing budget to work with - indicative of the
value the organization puts on PR. It does, however, vary from year to
year, depending on whether there is an election going on. In 2000,
Powers estimates that his budget was around $100 million for
advertising and PR, among other disciplines. In 2001, he says it will be
closer to $50 million.
With cash like that to throw around, it should be no wonder that the NRA
has ascended to No. 1 on Fortune's Washington Power 25 list, ahead of
the AARP, the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), and
the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
But as Powers points out, achieving influence requires more than
It requires constituents who believe in your cause and a strategy to
identify and recruit them.
Such was the story of the 2000 election and the NRA's subsequent rise on
the scale of influence, according to Powers. The group made a strong
push last year to bring union members - a Democratic bloc by tradition -
into the fold. "A large portion of AFL-CIO members were also either
members of the NRA, hunters, sportsmen, or people who cared about this
issue," he says. "A real political strategy developed of trying to cut
into the labor-union base at the polls."
Part of that strategy was telling "key members of the media" precisely
what the NRA was up to. "One of the reasons you want to win elections is
to be recognized for having an influence," he explains. "So I suggested
to (political director) James Baker that we start talking to reporters
about our strategy of cutting into the union base. His comment was
something like, 'If we lose, we'll have egg on our face.' And I said,
'Well, yeah. That's true.' And he said, "Well then, I guess we'd better
Fortune reporter Jeffrey H. Birnbaum, author of the Washington Power 20,
believes the NRA rose to the top of the list largely because of the
GOP's hold on the White House and both chambers of Congress when the
list was compiled. But a savvy communications effort didn't hurt,
either. "They have a very sophisticated political machinery that
includes a network of political activists at the grassroots level -
almost precinct by precinct in key districts and states," he says. "And
by using all sorts of communications - some very hi-tech, some
traditional - they were able to get out to the voters who agreed with
them in places where mobilizing blocs of voters meant the difference
between victory and defeat."
It's not just about guns
These days, the NRA is using that power to further not the Second
Amendment, but the First. Powers and his staff have been busy helping to
derail proposed campaign finance legislation, which has already passed
the Senate and, if signed into law as is, would prevent advocacy
organizations like the NRA from running issue ads in the days leading up
to an election.
"We feel very strongly in our members' rights to collectively express
their views leading up to an election. We see this as a real freedom of
speech issue," says Powers.
With the NRA temporarily talking more about freedom of speech and less
about the right to bear arms, does this mean we can expect more warm and
fuzzy media hits?
No, says Powers. "No matter what I do," he laughs, "I don't think Katie
Couric is gonna like me, and Rosie O'Donnell is not inviting me on her
NATIONAL RIFLE ASSOCIATION
President: Charlton Heston
EVP and CEO: Wayne LaPierre
Executive director, NRA-ILA (Institute for Legislative Action): James J.
Director of communications: Bill Powers
Manager: Patricia Gregory
Senior media liaison: Andrew Arulanandam
Media liaison: Kelly Whitley
Agency of record: The Mercury Group, part of Ackerman McQueen
Annual marketing budget (2001): $50-$60 million.