With Amnesty International calling its stun guns torture devices and with media reports questioning their safety, Taser International has its hands full defending its product.
At Taser International, there is only room for the true believers.
Communication is a dogged fight for survival for the Scottsdale, AZ-based company, which manufactures and sells stun guns used by law enforcement, military, and private citizens across the country. Its relationship with the media and activist groups of all stripes reached explosive status years ago. For a relatively small company of 250 employees, Taser has garnered a ridiculous amount of media coverage. And very little of it is positive.
The main challenge, of course, is that people keep dying after being shocked by Tasers - more than 100 in the last four years in the US and Canada, according to a recent Amnesty International report. That is not to say, how- ever, that Tasers caused the deaths. As the company frequently notes, medical examiners have consistently declined to attribute such deaths directly to the shocks, citing other factors, including drug use, heart trouble, and even "sudden unexplained death syndrome."
Steve Tuttle, Taser's communications director, has been with the company since its founding in February 1994. He is clearly driven by a belief in the potential of Taser, and he has to be: Since a prominent front-page story about the company in The New York Times last year, which raised questions about Taser's claim that its stun guns are nonlethal, Tuttle estimates he has done more than a thousand media interviews. That puts him ahead of some Fortune 500 communication departments. "I don't think anybody here could have predicted anything near one-tenth of what we're receiving right now in their wildest dreams," he says. "This is 10 times what I thought would be a lot of coverage."
Going on offense
When the company began, with a staff of seven, Tuttle worked 16-hour days, handling everything from press releases to government affairs. Now, he has concentrated his duties on primarily crisis management, media, and stakeholder relations. But that has been more than enough to keep him busy.
"I am on defense right now. I literally am in a 15-round bout, and I think it's the third round, and I've been taking quite a few punches this round," he says. "So what we need to do now is get some offense."
To do that, Taser recently retained Washington, DC-based Dittus Communications to help it coordinate strategy, a job that Tuttle is too swamped to handle. He says Dittus is "develop[ing] a strategic plan to get message points out ahead of the curve," which means running a grassroots-like campaign to engage and promote third-party spokespeople on behalf of Taser. The team is specifically seeking local politicians, police chiefs, and even civil-rights groups that have been "educated" on the benefits of stun guns versus other police tools.
"The groups that tend to become negative are the ones that have no idea what our technology does, and they typically jump to the wrong conclusions initially," Tuttle says.
Kevin Walker, an SVP at Dittus who is leading the Taser account, characterizes the stun gun as a revolutionary product that has excited uninformed passions among its critics. "This is an organization that over the course of the past 10 years has been focused on manufacturing the product and growing the organization. They've arrived, but along the way there's a lot of misinformation out there," he says. "Balanced coverage is what we're looking for."
Taser is no slouch when it comes to producing and disseminating mounds of research and testimonials on the safety and effectiveness of its product. Its website and marketing materials include document upon document from doctors and police officers touting the guns' benefit as a lifesaving tool.
So are Tasers safe? A large part of the company's communication effort is devoted to convincing the media, the public, and politicians that they are. Taser continues to fund its own scientific studies to add to the body of research, but its official position is that the weapons are certifiably nonlethal, a charge disputed by many company critics. It is crucial for the company to retain the distinction of being less than deadly, which is why Tuttle takes the time to send e-mail blasts of each and every article from a local paper that attributes the death of someone hit by a Taser to a cause other than an electric shock. For reporters who follow the company closely, those e-mails sometimes roll in on a nearly daily basis, a grim track record of bodies in their wake.
A more intense set of challenges facing a company simply does not exist in America today, a fact readily acknowledged by Tuttle. "Our battle is not in the marketplace. It's in the media. And, make no mistake, we're in what's called a perfect storm," he says in the same world-weary tone that George Clooney used in the movie of the same name. "We have blown away the minds of many of the top public relations firms that have solicited our business."
One firm that has not been chewed up by the hurricane that is Taser thus far is Washington, DC-based Wexler & Walker, the company's public affairs and lobbying shop. Tuttle says Taser - which recently relocated to a new headquarters partly because the number of incoming phone calls had exceeded the capacity for its phone lines - would be "dead without them."
"They give us an inside-the-Beltway view that you have to have in this type of storm," says Tuttle.
Peter Holran, Wexler & Walker senior director, says that the job over the past three years has involved less direct issues-based lobbying than "continual education" of lawmakers on the benefits that Taser offers. He attributes the massive scrutiny of the company to both its stratospheric recent growth rate, and the fact that its product involves electricity, which he calls "a mysterious quantity to a lot of people."
Taser's high-profile critic
Of all of Taser's critics, none has been more high profile than Amnesty International. The group released a hefty report on the use of stun guns that drew heavy media coverage painting the product as dangerous. Furthermore, Amnesty has tied its concern with the weapons into its larger international campaign against torture, a word that Taser certainly does not care to be associated with.
"Electroshock weapons are increasingly becoming the weapon of choice for torturers," says Edward Jackson, Amnesty USA media director. "So our work on this issue is to call for accountability, oversight, [and] monitoring."
Amnesty's reports raise doubts about the conclusiveness of the science surrounding Tasers and call for a moratorium on the use of the weapons until further studies are done. While Taser and its firms dispute Amnesty's assertions, the coverage generated by the findings has impacted the company. The Chicago Police Department, for example, held off on a decision to distribute a batch of Tasers to street officers following a high-profile death. And in Jacksonville, FL, the sheriff pulled the weapons from officers after a public outcry over the department's freewheeling use of shocks.
Taser's leadership is gambling the future of the company on the success of its current communication effort. At the same time, it is bogged down in the battle of its life in the arena of public perception, it has built a new headquarters and increased its production capacity, and it has dipped a toe into marketing directly to consumers. If it cannot convince the media, the public at large, and jittery Wall Street investors that its product is, in fact, safe, Taser might end up as a mere historic curio rather than a powerhouse in the world of self-defense.
Tuttle compares his company's saga to that of the pepper-spray industry, which went through similar battles when the spray was introduced. But that industry had many manufacturers, while Taser stands alone.
"We are a lightning rod because we are the only game in town," Tuttle says. "A quiet day around here is probably most people's hectic week."
Communications director Steve Tuttle
PR coordinator Mike Coplen
Government affairs manager Mark Johnson
PR agencies Dittus Communications; Wexler & Walker