Unpacking the NRA's Communications Playbook

Ninety seven percent of Americans support universal background checks. 

Eighty three percent support a mandatory waiting period for gun purchases. 

Sixty seven percent think it’s too easy to purchase any gun (Quinnipiac University National Poll; 2/20/18). 

Yet, in the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre in Parkland, Fla., causing 17 deaths,Congress is more intransigent than it was after the Texas First Baptist Church, Las Vegas Strip, Pulse Nightclub, San Bernadino, Washington Navy Yard, and Sandy Hook shootings. This time, the GOP-led Congress has deferred to the president, who’s postured for “action” while meeting with victims, then predictably retreated to inaction when the news cycle was elsewhere. 

Why? Because the National Rifle Association, a tax-exempt nonprofit “social welfare organization” whose CEO, Wayne LaPierre, receives compensation north of $5 million per year, has had a stranglehold on the public discourse and on elected officials’ political will. Donald Trump, the NRA’s new chief ambassador, publicly thanked the NRA at its annual conference for the $30 million of support to his presidential campaign: “You came through for me and I'm going to come through for you."



As a producer of media-anchored social impact initiatives around thorny topics like evolution, climate change, and vaccines, I deconstruct the strategy and messaging around these issues to proactively challenge them in a project’s media properties and communications. Clearly, the NRA has borrowed some strategies designed to confuse and sow doubt from Big Tobacco (about the link between tobacco and cancer) and Big Oil (about the link between fossil fuels and climate change). These are some key techniques from the NRA’s Communications Playbook.

1. Divert attention from the inconvenient truth — guns are instruments of death

Automatic weapons are designed to annihilate, which is why they’re used in war. The radiologist who treated victims of Parkland shooting said victims’ internal organs were obliterated, with “nothing left to repair.” Still, you can buy an AR-15 at 18 in the U.S., but you can’t rent a car until you’re 25.

To pivot away from easy access to deadly weapons, Wayne LaPierre pointed to the “failure” of family, school security, and the FBI as causes for mass shootings. A recent NRA TV video added that mainstream media is “loving” these shootings, implying liability. Donald Trump placed responsibility on Parkland neighbors and classmates who knew the shooter was “mentally disturbed” and “should always report such instances to authorities, again and again,” which they did. Whatever the flavor of the NRA’s and Trump’s diversionary message, it’s never about guns. 

And to ensure it's never about gun control, in 1996, the NRA lobby successfully prohibited the Centers for Disease Control from studying gun violence prevention with federal dollars. Studies like the effects of gun reform in Scotland after the Dublane shooting that banned handguns and semi-automatics (allowing only for manually loaded rifles and shotguns) and required a two-month licensing process (checking for DUIs, parking tickets, mental health status, and gun storage) — which resulted in only one mass shooting in 20+ years. Without science, evidence-based solutions that protect the public are weakened. The NRA dodges all discussion of the inherent danger of guns and the need for and the value of sensible oversight of them.

2. Place the blame on the intangible — the shooter’s state of mind 

No one can know or control what’s in another’s mind. Even the most gifted psychologists can’t predict whether a troubled person will commit a mass shooting. And, privacy protections go a long way in keeping individuals’ health conditions private. Mental health is supremely difficult to assess, track, and regulate.

The NRA and Donald Trump have made mental health a singular culprit for these mass shootings, even though regulating around it offers limited solutions. The NRA’s Dana Loesch said the Parkland shooter, “was nuts.” Trump cited the lack of mental hospitals as a cause for such shootings and even suggested incarcerating the mentally ill even if they haven’t committed a crime.

Trump also revived an old saw — violent videogames cause mass shootings. Only 20% of school shooters played videogames, compared with 70% of high school students overall. China and Japan are in the top three global consumers of videogames (the U.S. is number two) and have virtually no mass shootings. The idea: to create distance and abrogate responsibility by shaping a shooter persona of a crazy, societal failure.

3. Launch a broader appeal media campaign — attach to larger pro-Trump movement

While the NRA has only five million members (the AARP has 37 million), it has a big media and lobbying footprint. They know the more you see or hear a message, the more likely you are to remember it and believe it. But, with most Americans supporting gun control, the NRA needs a message that expands its support. So, it’s commandeered the rallying cries of Trump’s supporters and identified common enemies. The NRA uses its website, YouTube, NRA TV, and social media to espouse conspiracy theories and attack the media and the left — embedding into and firing up Donald Trump’s base (and bots).

A new ad from the NRA darkly calls on its supporters and gun owners to respond to criticism to Trump from Barack Obama and Democrats with a "clenched fist." In the ad, Dana Loesch pointedly refers to a mysterious “they” from whom the NRA and its supporters must “save our country and our freedom.” Third Reich-esque. 

On Oscar Sunday, an NRA TV tweet said, “To every lying member of the media, to every Hollywood phony, to the role model athletes who use their free speech to alter and undermine what our flag represents…Your Time is running out. The clock starts now." In a single tweet, the NRA threatens Hollywood, the mainstream media, #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, and #TimesUp. Appallingly, included in the “they” — vocal people of color and (female) sexual assault victims.  

4. Light a small fire to put out a bigger fire — focus on school safety

Mass shootings can happen anywhere. In a soccer field, a library, a concert, a carnival, or an office. Acknowledging the myriad venues where mass shootings can occur requires the “solution” to focus on the common thread — guns. But when you go narrow — say, school settings — like Wayne LaPierre did last month at CPAC, you can focus on specific solutions in that context that have nothing to do with wider gun control. 

With the Parkland school shooting being the most recent, and school shootings having such emotional resonance, it's been easy for Trump and the NRA to steer the conversation toward school safety. Trump fueled a discussion for a while, bringing victims to the White House, televising bipartisan D.C. meetings, and entertaining solutions — from arming teachers to raising the assault weapon ownership age to 21. During this public appeasement, the messaging end-goal was always to narrow the conversation from gun control to school safety.

Focusing on arming teachers and school safety has also shifted responsibility from the national to the local. In the U.S., curriculum is set by the states and other key decisions are made by school systems. When the gun control hot potato falls into the maw of states rights, it releases pressure from advancing a federal bill about universal background checks or banning assault rifles, and requires local jurisdictions to create their own school safety plans. The gun control discussion is diverted and the onus is diffused across the country as part of a protracted, messy localized process.

5. Shoot the messengers — even if they’re kids

Discrediting the opposition is an old standby in dirty politics. The NRA is rightly worried because the behemoth lobbying group has a worthy opponent — passionate and dogged teen activists carrying the torch for sensible gun control, backed by overwhelming public sentiment to effect real change. 

NRA chief Wayne LaPierre warns of a "socialist wave" that threatens "to make all of us less free” and of which, “You should be anxious and…frightened." Picking up the gauntlet, far-right blog, The Gateway Pundit accused the Parkland anti-gun violence teens of being “coached” by the left. Fox, Brietbart, and One American New Network blew up the story. Former Arizona sheriff Richard Mack compared the teens’ pleas for sensible gun control to “rhetoric from Hitler.” Far-right commentators issued a litany of conspiracies about the students — from being crisis actors to working for the FBI. The internet piled on, trollingEmma Gonzalez’, David Hogg’s, and Sarah Chadwick’s social profiles to expose these kids’ participation in a nefarious lefty plot. 

This has backfired. Media and other adults lodging ad hominems against thoughtful, well-prepared, and respectful young victims of a senseless tragedy eviscerates their argument and lays bare a nasty, desperate agenda. 

6. Lie and backpedal — claim support of stronger background checks

Desperation yields fabrication and lies. During a CNN town hall facing Parkland student victims, NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch intimated that the NRA has been supporting stronger background checks for more than 20 years, especially for people with mental health issues. Not so. The NRA publicly lauded Trump’s recent reversal of an Obama administration action adding 75,000 risky mentally ill individuals to the gun check register. And, the NRA website affirms its longstanding opposition to strengthening background checks: 

  • NRA opposes expanding firearm background check systems, because background checks don’t stop criminals from getting firearms, because some proposals to do so would deprive individuals of due process of law, and because NRA opposes firearm registration.
  • Background checks don’t necessarily stop criminals from getting firearms. Federal studies have repeatedly found that persons imprisoned for firearm crimes get their firearms mostly through theft, the black market, or family members or friends. Less than one percent get guns at gun shows.

This statement is also inaccurate, diminishing the extent of the loophole — sidestepping background checks if guns are purchased at gun shows — to less than 1% of gun sales. A new national study by public health researchers at Harvard and Northeastern reveals that 22% of current U.S. gun owners acquiring firearms in the past two years had no background check.

Donald Trump backpedalled his seeming support for raising the purchase age of assault-style weapons and strengthening background checks after meeting with NRA lobbyist Chris Cox.With the difficult meetings with the kids and families behind him and positive optics achieved, Trump lined back up with the NRA’s position — firearm training for teachers and penalizing government agencies for not reporting key data to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Of course, none of this touches background check waiting periods or the loophole of not registering guns sold through private sales. 

The Power of the Parkland Teens

Some of the NRA’s communications techniques are brilliant. Others are shortsighted, underestimating this new battlefield. That’s because there's nothing as powerful as an idea whose time has come, led by an unassailable messenger. This resolute, rational, and authentic youth messenger is pioneering a breakthrough social movement. 

The teens of Parkland have managed a thoughtful and winning argument on social media. They’ve rallied the message through hashtags of #NeverAgain, #StudentsStandUp, #Enough, #GunControlNow, and #BoycottNRA. They’ve risen above the hate and bullying of trolls, media, and public officials who’ve attacked them personally. They’ve masterfully conveyed their message on every major national news outlet and many political and talk shows.

They’ve inspired a massive corporate NRA boycott by L.L. Bean, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Walmart, Best Western, Wyndham, Delta, United, Alamo, National, Enterprise, Hertz, Avis, Budget, First National Bank of Omaha, Chubb, Met Life, Symantec, Teladoc, Simplisafe, Starkey, Paramount, Sirva, Truecar, and more.

And, the teens have influenced Florida’s new gun control legislation banning bump stocks; raising the age to purchase any firearm from 18 to 21; instituting a three-day waiting period on gun purchases; and, providing more funding to school safety and mental health resources. 

Today, these teens will stage a 17-minute nationwide school walkout at 10 a.m. to honor the 17 killed in the Parkland, Fla, massacre. This will bring the horror and the need for real solutions back to the forefront of America’s consciousness. On March 24, they’ll lead the “March For Our Lives” in Washington, which will be replicated throughout the country. This youth-led movement is reminiscent of young people marching against segregation in Birmingham in 1963, advancing civil rights. 

America’s anti-gun violence teens know they must keep the public dialogue about gun control alive, use it to advance legislation, and make it a platform issue in the 2018 mid-term elections. In a few years, these kids will be voting, if not in the mid-terms, in the 2020 presidential election. Theirs is a force dreaded by the NRA — the ability to transform sound messaging into social action. 

2 comments about "Unpacking the NRA's Communications Playbook".
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  1. Matt Wade from Entepreneur, March 17, 2018 at 10:38 a.m.

    Not surprising, given who the NRA is, but these communications techniques are scary. Thanks for revealing them. I will look much more carefully at the gun lobby's communications in the future with this in mind and other anti-evidence groups.

  2. Anne Zeiser from Azure Media, March 22, 2018 at 7:44 a.m.

    You're welcome Matt. It will be interesting to see what the NRA's response is to the Parkland teen's March in D.C. My guess is they'll say very little if nothing, but they're running scared and are putting their time and money into Congressional elections (the NRA's political strategies is a while other article).

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