How I would have helped the NRA manage today’s press conference

I never expected the NRA to suggest support for any gun control legislation, but I still watched the “press conference” today with anticipation.  After nearly a week of silence, the largest, most influential gun rights organization in the world was going to speak out in response to the Sandy Hook school shooting.
Looking at this from a strictly public relations point of view, the NRA’s event is a good, quick case study of how not to do public relations.
Going into this, the NRA leadership knows the country is divided on this topic, and very emotional about it.  The NRA’s initial response after the Newtown massacre was to pull down their Facebook page and go silent on Twitter.  On Wednesday of this week they made a brief statement and announced a press conference on Friday, December 21, which prompted more than a few jokes about their timing and the Mayan Apocalypse.  (Hey, if the world ends, they won’t have to do it…)
There are plenty of summaries, transcripts and videos around, if you didn’t watch it. I like the C-Span version because they show the whole thing unedited.
In summary—After a brief introduction by NRA president DavidKeene (who stated they would not take questions), EVP and CEO Wayne LaPierre was introduced. What transpired was fascinating to watch. 
LaPierre’s body language and tone of voice were initially very slow and measured—too slow, in my opinion. I don’t know if he was trying to appear sad or apolitical, but he came across as disingenuous and insincere.  At times he appeared to ramble. Speaking in a tone suitable for first graders, LaPierre reminded me of Mr. Rogers reading to pre-schoolers during story time.
The gist of LaPierre’s speech was to blame gun-free zones around schools, the media, the entertainment industry, online and video games, and a culture of violence in our society. He specifically cited something called Kindergarten Killer and criticized the media for not covering it. I’ll wager this little-played, little-known online flash game has had more hits today than in its entire 10-year existence, thanks to the free publicity from the NRA.
I could hear Fred Rogers in my head when LaPierre said “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
LaPierre handled interruptions by two protesters well. He simply stopped speaking and waited while they were escorted from the room. 
The Mr. Rogers tone and pacing waned when LaPierre started to discuss the proposal–armed police officers and trained volunteers patrolling every school in the country. He announced the National School Shield initiative and introduced former congressman Asa Hutchinson as the director of the new program. Hutchinson’s remarks were brief, straightforward and clear. He demonstrated more credibility as a leader than LaPierre, and I felt more confident about the program when he spoke about it. Body language and delivery DO make a difference.
The event wrapped with Keene returning to the podium as reporters started to shout questions. This is where the most regrettable quote of the day came–Keen said “…this is the beginning of a serious conversation. We won’t be taking questions today.”  Probably an ad-lib, but the quote made Twitter come alive.
If the NRA had hired me to be their PR counsel, here’s what I would have suggested:
  • Don’t call it a press conference if you’re not planning on taking questions. Media come to news conferences expecting to ask questions rather than be lectured to.
  • Refrain from insulting your audience. LaPierre made numerous jabs at the media. They know he doesn’t like them, and most return the sentiment. But antagonizing the messenger lessens the chance they’ll really hear your message, and dilutes balanced coverage. Show the respect you expect to recive.
  • Provide facts and figures. LaPierre blamed Hollywood and the video game industry for gun violence, but offered no studies to support his claim. Research supporting both sides of this argument exists. If you want to take the emotion out of an emotional issues, try adding some facts.
  • Include a full page about your new National School Shield. initiative, with a direct link from the home page. “More info coming soon” is not a suitable response. If you’ve had time to develop the program enough to hire new leadership, you’ve got time to put together a Web page with more info than a bio and a speech transcript. And don’t make us look for it on your site. 
  • Offer support to groups lobbying on behalf of better mental health care. Yes, that’s radical, and while there still isn’t conclusive evidence the Newtown shooter was mentally ill, most spree shooters are. If you’re not going to do anything to keep “monsters” (LaPierre’s word) from accessing firearms, at least work with those who are trying to help the mentally ill. Opening a dialogue with groups like the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) could help the NRA’s credibility with people on both sides of the gun issue as well as reduce the need for an armed police state.
PR friends, what do you think? How would you have helped the NRA improve their event today?

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