Bill Wohl has creds in the gun control debate and a piece he wrote for PRWeek contains valuable observations about the National Rifle Association’s poor crisis responses to the terrible school shooting in Newtown, CT.
His main point is that NRA VP Wayne LaPierre, below, missed a crucial opportunity to help guide the inevitable gun-control process, instead staking out his corner of irrelevance for the rest of the world to see and easily dismiss after his Dec. 21 news conference. Wrote Wohl:
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…”
But here’s where Whol’s views, sent to me by my EMA colleague Chuck Beeler, really gather speed:
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.
He goes on: 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 itself and its agenda for greater long-term success.
A critical rule of crisis communications is knowing when to not communicate. So, give the NRA credit for its 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.
When even conservative author and commentator Ann Coulter gets in your face, as she did with LaPierre, you know you aren’t doing the job — for any ideology.
Wohl’s views are valuable, because they are so practical. Crisis management, at its root, is about practical solutions applied to angry and emotional events. Crisis conjurs mistakes, failure, high stakes and, oftentimes, losing. No one wants to attach themselves to such ragged-edge qualities. But nothing will cement those labels to you faster than ignoring some of the actions Wohl suggests.
The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at http://www.mower.com. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.