NRA courts controversy in push to amplify message

Many groups avoid confrontation, but the National Rifle Association welcomes it.

Many groups avoid confrontation, but the National Rifle Association welcomes it.

At 4 million members strong and growing, its aggressive philosophy is proving to be right on target.

By waging a national boycott against ConocoPhillips, the National Rifle Association (NRA) has raised the stakes of its PR strategy. The association hopes the boycott, which began in July, will successfully rouse its millions of members and supporters across the nation against the company, striking a major blow to the oil giant's bottom line.

Unlike some political organizations that are backed by small groups of cautious financial supporters, the NRA doesn't shy away from confrontation, especially when it feels it can mobilize its 4 million members to rise up and defend suspected attacks on the Second Amendment. "By getting these fights into the national media through the use of manageable controversy, our public affairs people push the US public to the NRA's side in huge numbers," NRA EVP and CEO Wayne LaPierre says.

The NRA is angry that ConocoPhillips and other companies are trying to overturn an Oklahoma law that allows employees to keep guns in their cars when parked in company-owned lots. The law was passed after lumber company Weyerhaeuser fired 12 employees in 2002 at a plant near Idabel, OK, for violating a policy forbidding firearms on company property.

LaPierre contends that if ConocoPhillips and other companies succeed in challenging the law in federal court, it could threaten the right-to-carry laws on the books in 38 states. "It's a blueprint for ... destroying the ability of anyone to travel with firearms anywhere in this country," he says. "And that's the very guts of why this goes to the core of the Second Amendment in the US."

"Part of the strategy here is to call on state legislatures and on Congress to turn a cold shoulder to ConocoPhillips and other corporations and institutions that seek to impede and deny the rights of law-abiding Americans to exercise their Second Amendment freedom," adds Andrew Arulanandam, public affairs director for the Fairfax, VA-based organization. "These corporations could stand to lose substantial amounts if their legislative wishes are not granted."

An assertive approach The NRA approaches PR, particularly media relations, from a substantially different perspective than most organizations, explains Bill Powers, EVP of The Mercury Group and former public affairs director for the NRA. "They've become so successful at managing controversy to the benefit of the organization," he says. "When I worked up there, I used to say my job isn't to put out fires; it's to help start them."

Earlier this summer, the NRA stunned the city of Columbus, OH, when it decided to pull out of holding its annual convention there in 2007 because the city recently passed an assault weapons ban. The association opted to move the convention to St. Louis.

But Peter Hamm, communications director for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, one of the NRA's main adversaries in DC, believes the public affairs group at the NRA was handed a "turkey" to package for the news media when the ConocoPhillips boycott campaign was launched.

"I can't imagine that the PR professionals at the NRA thought [the ConocoPhillips boycott] would go well for them," Hamm says. "The manageable controversies theory in this case wasn't very manageable. I can't remember any really good press stories that they got out of this one."

Arulanandam, who reports directly to LaPierre, says his division is fortunate to have people in the highest ranks of the association who understand the significance of communications and public affairs. Very seldom does a division director in an organization answer to the chief executive, he explains. "Wayne is a seasoned veteran at political affairs and public affairs, and, as such, he understands the vital role communications plays," he says.

During the debate in the US Senate this summer over legislation that would grant some immunity to gun makers and sellers, Arulanandam's group was tasked with monitoring media outlets that were spreading "misinformation" about the scope of the legislation. In late July, the Senate ultimately passed a bill that shields the firearms industry against certain lawsuits aiming to hold gun makers or sellers responsible for gun violence.

"Basically, everyone was stating that this is a de facto blanket immunity bill," Arulanandam says. "We had to be aggressive, and if any reporters said that, we would call the reporters and give them the facts, and e-mail them the pertinent section in the legislation that basically refutes that."

The Mercury Group has handled PR for the NRA for more than 20 years. Powers says one of the challenges that the association has traditionally faced is fostering a level of education and appreciation of Second Amendment issues among the national press. Based on the NRA's political success over the past decade, however, reporters are beginning to adjust their coverage of the association, he notes.

"A lot of folks in the national press have done a better job of trying to understand and appreciate the organization, and the issues than they did 10 or 15 years ago," Powers says.

But there are still inaccuracies in the media that the NRA believes it needs to confront. LaPierre contends that the media's "dishonesty" on firearms issues in recent years is increasingly being noticed and challenged by the public. The large number of NRA supporters "gives us tremendous power in terms of battling the inaccuracies that you see in the media," LaPierre says.

Hamm disputes the notion that many in the mainstream media do not understand Second Amendment issues or distort the truth about guns. "Whenever after 10 years you haven't succeeded in educating the mainstream media, then there may be some underlying problem beyond the intelligence level of the mainstream media," he says. "On a lot of these issues, the press does get it."

Arulanandam contends that the gun-control lobby did a phenomenal job in "misleading" the American public on the so-called assault weapons ban legislation signed into law by President Clinton in 1994. "When you use the term 'assault weapons,' the image that comes to anyone's mind is a fully automatic firearm, i.e. you depress the trigger once and [if] you keep it depressed, multiple rounds will come out," he says. But the 1994 ban, he says, applied to only semiautomatic weapons, for which only one round comes out when you depress the trigger.

In the end, the NRA came away victorious when the ban expired in 2004. LaPierre says that the NRA's ability to bypass the filter of the national media and send its message directly to the American people played an important role in making sure the ban was not renewed.

Influential citizen activism

In 2004, the association also created its own news service, NRA News, which broadcasts daily reports on political and legal issues affecting gun owners. "NRA went out and said, 'We're not going to be silent. We're going to establish an NRA news subsidiary just like Disney and General Electric have news subsidiaries,'" LaPierre explains.

Through its aggressive PR and marketing, the NRA has emerged as the most successful brand of citizen activism over the past two decades, says Powers. "The NRA has no big, wealthy backers like a lot of big political organizations in this town have," Powers says. "Every year Wayne LaPierre is responsible for raising $200 million from the ground up - small contributions made from citizens and supporters."

Arulanandam agrees that one of the NRA's most important assets is its large number of members. The association also "is noted for having support at the ballot box, and we're noted for having some political clout as a lobbying group," he says.

A few years ago, Fortune named the NRA the most powerful lobbying group in the US, moving ahead of AARP. Polling data shows the NRA's approval ratings are higher than either national political party, Powers notes.

Where the NRA has done its best work, from a PR perspective, Hamm argues, is convincing the mainstream media of the amount of political power that it has. "For that, I give them very high marks," he concedes.

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