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The NRA After Newtown: Is Silence Ever an Effective Communications Strategy?

As parents, schoolchildren and concerned citizens across the nation poured out their sympathy for families and friends of the young students and teachers who lost their lives at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, one normally vocal corner remained silent.

The National Rifle Association, the nation’s largest gun lobby, left news media with little more than “no comment” during wall-to-wall coverage of the tragedy in Newtown, Conn.

And, while brands and companies around the world took to social media to convey condolences to the people of Newtown, the NRA went dark on Twitter and Facebook (except for its Comments section, noted below). The organization ignored entirely the incident of Dec. 14 on its website, leaving up its regular content, including a scrolling account of successful pro-gun legislation in various states.

The NRA remained silent until Dec. 18, when a media statement appeared on the website, Facebook and Twitter, announcing a news conference, scheduled exactly one week after the Newtown shootings.

In part, the release said: “We were shocked, saddened and heartbroken by the news of the horrific and senseless murders in Newtown. Out of respect for the families, and as a matter of common decency, we have given time for mourning, prayer and a full investigation of the facts before commenting.”

A Time to Use Social Media? A Time to Remain Silent?

The NRA Facebook page and its Twitter account are back, with new content. But what about the lengthy (by traditional and social media standards) silence? Was it an effective way to manage a crisis? And are there social media lessons for brands, companies and causes?

The NRA, which spent more than $17 million in the most recent U.S. election cycle, is a lobby not known for media-shyness – even in the aftermath of school shootings, like the one at Columbine High School in Colorado. And it’s no surprise that news organizations would reach out to the NRA during tragic events like these, just as they contact the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence for comments.

While many communications experts recommend harnessing the power of social media to connect with reporters and key audiences in response to crises, there are some who suggest that when an organization is controversial or becomes the target of campaigns, it’s best to lay low and rely on followers to defend you.

There seems to be a consensus that whether the NRA was deliberately or passively silent this time, the blackout didn’t help matters.

In part, that’s because of comments made by the people who came out to support the NRA and looser gun laws.

In the interest of fair reporting, it should be noted that the NRA for many decades has promoted gun safety and education, especially for hunters, and has backed laws restricting access to guns for people with mental illnesses.

But, those aren’t the advocates who appeared on TV as the nation mourned. Instead, viewers heard Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert suggest that the principal of Sandy Hook Elementary, Dawn Hochsprung, who gave her life to protect her students, should have kept a gun at a school where more than 400 children were enrolled.

“I wish to God she had had an M-4 in her office, locked up so when she heard gunfire, she pulls it out and she didn’t have to lunge heroically with nothing in her hands and takes him out and takes his head off before he can kill those precious kids,” Gohmert told Fox News.

There were also defenders who called for laws allowing concealed weapons on school campuses.

And then there was the one part of the NRA Facebook page that was still functioning all week – the Comments section – where gun-control proponents, the Obama administration and liberals were condemned as “communists” and other things too obscene to repeat.

With friends like these, perhaps the organization would have done better defending itself.

That is the approach many social media practitioners advocate.

Lessons for Social Media Crisis Management

In The Social Media Strategist, Christopher Barger, a former social media director at IBM and at GM during the government bailout of the auto industry, devotes several chapters to best practices in social media during crises.

Although social networks provide haters with a ready space to attack an organization or brand, Barger notes, they also offer “a fast and effective way to convey information during a crisis, to have a much larger audience see you actively trying to resolve the crisis by doing the right thing rather than just trying to protect your reputation.”

As an advocacy group, supporting one side of a divisive issue, the NRA could have used social media to be part of the national conversation. During the crisis, an organization like the NRA should have:

Actively engaged the broader audience beforehand

  • Instead of preaching to the choir, advocacy groups should reach out and engage in two-way dialogue with people on both sides of an issue. The goal isn’t necessarily to convert the opposition, but to be seen as responsive to issues and questions and as a reliable and unbiased source of information.
  • Earning this reputation involves correcting erroneous information – even in posts on your social media accounts by your most loyal supporters.
  • Providing accurate facts is especially important in an age of Google Search and ensures that your organization is the source of accurate, up-to-date, searchable content.

“Trust is a capital commodity in social networks,” explains Barger, “and if you haven’t invested in it before you have a crisis, you’ll have none to draw on.”

Have clearly stated guidelines for social media behavior on your accounts

  • Barger advises organizations not to censor criticism, but adds that you can shut down the Comments feature to prevent further attacks.
  • If posts are taken down because they violate the site guidelines, this should be openly addressed.

“Accepting criticism is part of being online,” Barger says. “If you start deleting, removing, or censoring the comments of your critics, you’ve lost the high ground and handed them a rhetorical weapon that can cost you the support of even those inclined to feel empathy for you.”

Recognize that your audience is watching

  • Publicly responding in a humane, respectful manner is crucial to effective crisis management under any circumstance. To reiterate, comments on social and traditional media in the immediate aftermath of a crisis aren’t about protecting an organization’s reputation, they’re about demonstrating that the organization is aware and listening.
  • Taking the lead in such situations also indicates to your supporters how you’d like them to act and discuss the incident in the social sphere. It demonstrates the tone, manner and frame for social engagement by your supporters and has the opportunity to remove some of the vitriol that often appears online in highly charged situations.

Acknowledge your social media mistakes

  • Sometimes organizations refuse to respond to crises – or respond too late – because they’re afraid to put a foot wrong. Radio-silence just makes people suspicious, whether they’re supporters or haters.
  • Acknowledging a mistake demonstrates integrity and self-awareness; it can build credibility.

Mistakes are part of social media,” insists Barger, “and people will often understand this.”

“Publicly acknowledge the goof, with humility but without overly fawning or pleading for forgiveness,” he recommends.

Follow up

  • Crises often have the odd effect of increasing the number of followers on an organization’s social media accounts. Don’t lose momentum once a crisis has passed. Take the opportunity to continue to engage followers on both sides of the debate, share content, listen to what they have to say, and show that you’ve changed as a result of the incident that created the crisis in the first place.
  • Keeping up your level of communication on social media after a crisis reinforces “any trust or benefit of the doubt that you might have earned,” adds Barger.

Finally, Barger notes, that the longer an organization waits “to recognize that there are people unhappy with one of your actions, the less it seems that you’re listening.”

That, of course, is the crux of the matter. Social media has never been about grabbing a microphone and blasting a position at an audience; it’s all about listening to what audiences (people who love your organization, hate it, or feel indifferent about it) have to say and finding thoughtful and respectful ways to engage.

Silence negates that agreement we have with supporters. It damages an organization’s reputation and credibility among the news media and only tends to confirm the worst suspicions of those in opposition. 

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