Silence as a PR Strategy: Crisis Communications When the Faces of Tragedy are Just Six Years Old.

FIVE THôT columnist DEREK GORDON is a marketing and sales exec with more than 20 years success in integrated marketing and sales strategy and management. He is the Chief Marketing and Sales Officer for Pathbrite.

As the holiday cheer was shattered late last week with the news that 27 people were killed in a mass murder involving semi-automatic guns and rifles, and that 20 of those killed were small children, a number of brands went immediately into crisis communications mode. From gun manufacturers to makers of ammunition, the National Rifle Association (NRA) to the Republican Party, everyone absorbed the shocking reports and then shifted strategy. 

But rather than trot out long-prepared talking points designed for precisely this sort of contingency, a remarkable consensus emerged from across these brands almost in lock-step: say nothing.

As the media scrambled to assemble the facts and present the human toll, they almost immediately sought comment from a wide variety of dogs in the gun control hunt. Supporters of stricter laws to control the sale and possession of guns were quick to respond. But folks who traditionally advocate for unfettered gun ownership and ammo access went quiet.

For instance, the weekend news programs couldn’t find a congressional Republican to join their debates. The NRA stopped posting on its Twitter feed, shuttered its Facebook page and refused to respond to media inquiries. Manufacturers also went radio silent.

Other brands and professional services providers took an opposite tack, which made sense. Funeral directors, casket manufacturers and mental health professionals all stepped up to the plate to offer their services for free and to ease the burdens on the limited infrastructure in place in such a small town. 

National tragedies are dangerous territory. After the September 11th attacks, many brands quickly altered or pulled their advertising altogether and spent time recalibrating outbound communications.

But where tragedies also coincide with politics, it is unusual to find such unified silence from one side of a debate, particularly one that has been argued as fiercely as gun control. For fully four days, the pro-gun side of the argument couldn’t be found anywhere.

Yesterday, some brands began to break the silence. Cerebus Capital Management, which owns the manufacturer of at least one of the guns used in the shooting, announced it was placing its weapons and ammunitions holdings on the auction block. Divestiture of those assets, it would seem, is preferable to facing the public’s outrage over this latest tragedy.

Dick’s Sporting Goods said it would suspend gun sales in its stores. Perhaps the pressure on it was too great for business as usual.

And the NRA released a statement expressing its condolences to the families of those lost in the killing spree. They also said they would hold a press conference this Friday to begin “participating in the debate” on new gun control measures being prepared by Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California.

It was probably the right business strategy for manufacturers and retailers to go mum in the face of such mind-numbing news. But for those lobbyists and politicos whose personal brands and organizational capital have been tied-up in the advocacy of unfettered gun ownership, a decision to remain so silent for so long could wind up looking cowardly.

Whether right or wrong, smart or dumb: it turns out silence is the name of the PR game when the faces of tragedy are just six years old.

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