ANALYSIS: Client Profile - PR is ammo for nation's most powerfullobbyist - Love it or hate it, the NRA is more powerful than any otherlobbyist in America...

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

do PR?"

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

political agenda."

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

pro-gun-control supporters.

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



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.

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