When Tragedy Upends A Life AND A Career: Sandy Hook Promise's Nicole Hockley


Eleven years ago today, Dec. 14, 2012, one of the largest and most gut-wrenching mass killings in U. S. history occurred when a gunman killed 26 people -- including 20 children aged six or seven -- at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

One of those kids was Dylan Hockley, whose mother Nicole had been nearly ready to resume her career in marketing a year after returning to the States from the U.K., where she’d worked for several companies in the food and financial services categories.

Nicole’s career path pivoted quickly into advocacy as she co-founded the nonprofit Sandy Hook Promise, where she has brought her marketing expertise into her role as chief executive officer.

Recent examples of the group’s work include “Just Joking,” a PSA campaign that uses famous comedians to convey a serious message, and “UnTargeting Kids,” a report about how the firearms industry markets guns to children that includes recommended advertising guidelines.

Pharma & Health Insider spoke with Hockley about Sandy Hook Promise -- and how her marketing background has informed her work there.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Pharma & Health Insider: How did your background in marketing help you figure out how to position Sandy Hook Promise?

Hockley: My experience helped significantly because you need overall business wherewithal to start and run an organization. The framing of our messaging and strategy was critically important -- to be differentiated, meaningful and something people would gravitate toward.

Pharma & Health Insider: How does your messaging differ from other groups?

Hockley: From day one, we have been completely nonpartisan. We’ve done a lot of message reframing.

When this happened, the language was still “gun control.” Sandy Hook Promise changed it to “gun violence prevention” because, as we know from our marketing experience, words matter.

“Gun control” automatically puts audiences against you who identify as gun owners and are focused on second-amendment constitutional rights. Focusing on things that we can all be for, such as protecting children and keeping our families safe, is more of a common platform.

Looking for common ground solutions [also differentiates us]. We made an early promise that we would never go against people and be confrontational. That’s coming from my marketing background in terms of, once you shut the door on someone, you can’t open the door back up.

Pharma & Health Insider:  Can you talk about the recent UnTargeting report and its marketing guidelines?

Hockley: First and foremost -- and the rule of every marketing person: If people aren’t aware of the problem or your product, they’re not going to be able to take action on it. So the first protocol was to make people aware of how the firearms industry is marketing to youth, because if we don’t have that moral outrage as parents in knowing that something is going on that’s wrong for our kids, we’re not going to take action.

Pharma & Health Insider: Has the firearms industry reacted to the proposed guidelines?

Hockley: Not yet. The first action we’ve asked for is for the industry to self-regulate.

My career was basically in the U.K., which has a lot of advertising regulations and standards. It’s not the same here in America, but the first protocol is to ask the firearms industry to be more responsible. If they don’t take self-regulate, we will push for formal regulations through government mandates.

Pharma & Health Insider: What causes have influenced Sandy Hook Promise?

Hockley: UnTargeting was very much modeled on the big tobacco campaigns, copying that playbook to create social change.

Tobacco is still available and sold. Firearms are still going to be available and sold. It’s about changing marketing practices.

The designated driver campaign [from Mothers Against Drunk Driving - MADD] was a model that I studied and used for the whole strategy of Sandy Hook Promise. [MADD was also led by a woman who lost her child to the problem.]

Until Sandy Hook Promise, everyone was working on gun violence prevention purely from a policy and political angle. No one was doing anything in terms of mass consumer awareness. No one was tackling the issue that gun violence is preventable if you know the signs.

So we decided to look at designated drivers and how they [MADD] had changed the entire behavior of a generation.

Pharma & Health Insider: BBDO has worked on your PSAs since 2013, helping you win two commercial Emmys.

Hockley: The first PSA wasMonsters Under the Bed” and the breakthrough PSA was “Evan” in 2016. It got people to understand that there are warning signs of violence and, if you know what to look for, you can take action

I don’t remember how we first got involved with BBDO. I remember meeting with lots of different ad agencies that wanted to work with us. BBDO has become a very, very trusted partner… because they get us -- and we can challenge each other.

Pharma & Health Insider: Do you see gun violence as a health issue?

Hockley: Absolutely. It’s the number-one cause of death for children under the age of 19, and takes the lives of over 50,000 people every year. How can you not view it as a health issue?

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