On December 21, National Rifle Association EVP Wayne LaPierre held a press conference, the first statement by the organization in the wake of the horrific school shooting in Newtown, CT.
In the remarks, the NRA called for the arming of schools and blamed video games, movies, and music videos for exposing children to violence. The result: the NRA was painted as extremist, its leaders as out of touch, and some groups even blamed mass shootings on the NRA.
Imagine if LaPierre had said:
“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. I join with millions of NRA members in expressing our sincere shock and horror about the events in Newtown. I'm just off the phone with Vice President Joe Biden on a call where I pledged to personally join his task force and commit the NRA's full support and expertise in helping to find a real and reasoned approach to managing the crisis that faces our great nation…”
Talk about a missed opportunity…
This not a column on gun rights or the NRA. It would be tempting to talk about the politics of gun control in the wake of Newtown (26 murdered in a school), the tragedy of Webster (two fellow firefighters ambushed by sniper), the terrible theatre massacre of 12 in Aurora, or the awful statistics of Chicago (500-plus gun deaths in 2012). Having run communications at Remington Arms, being a gun owner, and as a volunteer firefighter, these topics are very close to home.
This column is about learning lessons for all crisis communicators from the NRA's actions and not just because the press and the nation panned and condemned their “blame everyone else, arm the schools” platform. The real failure was missing a critical opportunity to credibly position themselves and their agenda for greater long-term success.
Set aside for a moment, if you can, your own perspective on the NRA and guns, keep in mind that Mr. LaPierre is paid by his members for only one thing: take a no-compromise approach to protecting gun rights.
There are three key rules of crisis communications we can highlight in the NRA's actions:
A critical rule of crisis communications is knowing when to not communicate. So, give the NRA credit for their self-imposed silence in the immediate aftermath of Newtown…good judgment prevailed in that first week.
A second critical rule is knowing your market environment, and using that knowledge to shape your plan. No one inside the executive suite of the NRA should have misdiagnosed the mood of the nation and the increasing pressure to do something in the wake of the unspeakable acts of a mad man – it was not business as usual; this was different.
LaPierre also forgot a third most important rule of crisis comms – understanding the “end game” and knowing how to achieve your goals at each step along the way. For the NRA, the “end game” should have been to assure a seat “at the table” as the country begins a process led by Biden about how to stop the violence. I know the NRA doesn't want a conversation on guns and gun rights – every fiber in their being tells them that such a process in this emotion-filled environment risks new restrictions that will impact their members.
But, being at the table would assure that they could shape and influence the discussion as the experts on the subject and as the representatives of millions of law-abiding gun owners, sportsmen, and a reluctant gun industry. Instead, they were driven by the pressure of the crisis to say something fast, and -- rather than read and adapt to severe market signals -- they relied on old standard approaches when clearly a new approach was the right next play. Now, instead of “at the table,” they are locked outside the room with the most to lose.
If the NRA had thought about the complex communications challenge as a predictable set of moves like those in a high-stakes chess game, they might have understood that a reasoned first step could better position them for success later, and they could have taken a different approach at that fateful press event.
Too often in the heat of the crisis, we are focused on the “here-and-now” and fail to anticipate “what's-going-to-happen-next” to lay out our best communications agenda. Luckily, few of us will have to manage a crisis as complex as the one facing the NRA, on issues as divisive as gun rights. Regardless of our industry, and in crises large and small, remember: choose your first moves carefully, accurately predict what will happen next, and always keep the end game in mind.Wohl has played leading global roles at companies such as Hewlett-Packard, SAP AG, and Remington Arms. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter at @billwohl61.