As the push for gun control legislation grows in the wake of school shootings, public relations experts offer their advice for how the gun industry should handle its image and issues.
May 27 — In the wake of school shootings in Littleton, Colo. and Conyers, Ga., and with U.S. cities lining up to sue manufacturers, the gun industry might be tempted to shut down its public relations and marketing efforts and take an extended summer vacation.
But burying their heads in the sand is exactly what gun makers shouldn’t do, say marketing experts. Although the spin doctors and marketers are divided on whether the gun makers should cede some ground in the gun control debate, all agree that the industry must take try to take control of its destiny and try to shape its image before others do it for them.
“They have to be proactive,” says Ken Harris, retail and marketing consultant for Evanston, Ill.-based Cannondale Associates. “They can’t allow the fates to [determine] what should happen.”
With gun control legislation pending in Congress, manufacturers need to look beyond gun enthusiasts for support and reach out to general public, says Carol Davis, managing partner at Kane, Bortree & Associates, a New York-based brand image consulting firm. Gun makers, she says, could consider a campaign akin to the alcohol industry’s “don’t drink and drive” spots.
Acknowledge problem, duck blame
Doing that means the gun industry must achieve a delicate balance: acknowledging the public’s need to find someone to blame for the recent shootings without sacrificing its message that people, not guns, are ultimately the culpable parties.
“They may have to be somewhat subtle, because things are just too hot right now,” advises Harris, the marketing consultant. “They should make the issue larger than just gun control and emphasize all the freedoms that people could potentially lose.”
Peter Sandman is a reputation management consultant who has worked with clients in the oil and chemical industry, the Environmental Defense Fund and on issues including radon testing and the E. coli crisis.
It’s essential for the gun industry to publicly concede a few key issues, he says. He recommends the industry put forward three agendas:
- Things it’s doing already that will help.
- Things it proposes to do that it thinks will help.
- Things others are urging it to do that it’ll now stop resisting.
“They should acknowledge there are things they’re now reluctantly willing to do because the world has changed.”
Concede or hang tough?
Al Ries agrees. The chairman of Ries & Ries, an Atlanta-based consulting firm says the industry should forget its notions of who is right and who is wrong in the gun control debate. “They should look at the proposals of their opposition and see if they can agree on one,” and then make some concessions, he suggests. “Hanging tough isn’t going to win.”
But others say this is not the time to yield ground. “When the tobacco companies started making concessions, it was like pulling out a piece of yarn from a sweater and having it end up in a ball on the floor,” says Harris. “They ought to stay as staunch as they can for as long as they can. Giving up an inch really will cost more.”
The issue of whether to cede ground has only exacerbated existing differences between gun manufacturers and the National Rifle Association. Many gun manufacturers, including representatives from Glock and Smith & Wesson, were invited to a recent White House summit on youth violence, suggesting they’re more willing to compromise on some measures. The NRA, however, is holding firm.
Don’t look for scapegoats
If the industry can’t speak with one voice, individual gun makers must decide whether to speak out, says Davies. “It’s important that they not lie low,” she says. “They can choose to shape [legislation] in a positive way or to be shaped.”
No matter who’s talking, it’s no time to point fingers, insists Sandman. “You can’t afford to complain about being scapegoated.”
Drawing a parallel to the fallout from the E. coli crisis, he says it did no good for a restaurant to complain that the source of the problem was the infected meat. Nor did it help for the meat supplier to protest that had the restaurant only cooked the meat well enough, no one would have gotten sick.
“If you are responsible for part of the problem, you’ve got a choice between focusing on the part you’re responsible for or the part you’re not responsible for,” Sandman advises. “The evidence is overwhelming that when people are paying attention to an issue, denying your share of the blame backfires.”
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