December 18, 2012

Parents and children outside of Sandy Hook Elementary School. (Michelle McLoughlin/Reuters)

On Fox News this morning, reporter James Rosen cited “sources close to the industry” as indicating that the National Rifle Association (NRA) would soon begin pushing back publicly in the gun-control debate launched by the Newtown massacre. Such an approach would entail a turnabout for the organization.

[NEWS FLASH: The NRA just announced that it will hold a press conference on Friday]

The Erik Wemple Blog is among many media outlets that have attempted this year to get feedback from the organization, to no avail. After the Aurora, Colo., shootings in July, we asked the NRA for its take on Bill O’Reilly’s proposal for greater FBI powers in policing gun purchases. Nothing in return. Then, after NBC sportscaster Bob Costas turned U.S. “gun culture” into a national talking point because of the Jovan Belcher murder-suicide, we tried the NRA again to see what they thought of this fellow spouting off at halftime. No response.

Today the Erik Wemple Blog tried again. The NRA has an “online contact form” with an option for “Journalists ONLY.” Here was the message we tried to leave:

Hi: I am a media reporter at the Washington Post and I would like to interview someone at the NRA about how it’s handling the press and public outreach after the Newtown tragedy. My contact information is above. Thanks for your consideration of this request.

After filling out the required fields, I hit “submit,” only to receive this warning in red letters: “Message can only contain letters, numbers and punctuation.”

OK, to the phone we go! After wading through the NRA’s voicemail system to reach an operator, I asked for someone who could help with media calls. That someone took down my name, organization, phone number and e-mail address. I explained what I was looking for. “I will submit your request for you,” said the helper. Do you know how long the request will take to process? I asked. “No, sir, I do not.”

That someone has been busy of late, too:

Talking Points Memo: “TPM reached out to the NRA for official comment on the abrupt halt of new posts on its still-active social network accounts, as well as the removal of the Facebook page, and will update when we receive any information.”

CNN: “In a statement provided to CNN Friday about the shootings, NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said only, ‘Until the facts are thoroughly known, NRA will not have any comment.’”

Associated Press: “The NRA, which claims 4.3 million members and is based in Northern Virginia, did not return telephone messages Monday seeking comment.

The Independent of London: “No comment has been made by any of its leaders to the mainstream media…”

The Toronto Star: “Calls to the NRA’s media office were not returned.”

USA Today: “Repeated requests for interviews with NRA leaders went unanswered.”

The Washington Post: “A call to the NRA’s headquarters in Fairfax County wasn’t returned.”

UPI: “Several of the Sunday news talk shows, including ABC’s ‘This Week,’ invited an NRA representative on to discuss gun control. ABC News said the programs received a statement from the NRA declining to comment because details of the investigation into the shooting were pending.”

The no-commenting and issuance of mere statements jibes with the association’s electronic outreach, or lack thereof, in the aftermath of Newtown. The NRA’s social-media team has taken down its Facebook page and has stopped tweeting, though online broadcasting continues, as Politico’s Dylan Byers has pointed out.

Josh Sugarman, a gun-control advocate with the Violence Policy Center, has observed the organization’s PR rhythms: “In general, the NRA tends to ignore people it feels are going to be mean to them — especially national media. Following high-profile shootings they go into lockdown. They express cursory sympathy for the victims, say now is the time to grieve and not talk about gun control, and then hope everyone moves on,” writes Sugarman in an e-mail.

Reporters have come to expect a bit more from Beltway trade associations when news hits: More-forthcoming statements, interview opportunities, background briefings, etc. The NRA just doesn’t roll that way. And who’s to say it isn’t a remarkably effective approach to public relations? A reporter who formerly covered the association riffs on the dynamic: “They are one of the most disciplined operations going. They will talk to you when they deem it useful. They are very sophisticated in how they choose to talk or not talk…They are aggressive and on message at all times. The people who run their media shop are smart, they’re essentially as good as any political operatives out there.”

Nor should the national media feel singled out. Tom Mauser is the father of Daniel Mauser, a 15-year-old student who died in the 1999 Columbine High School tragedy. A month after the shootings, Mauser wrote a letter to the NRA asking what he terms “basic questions” about gun control. “That letter and subsequent letters have never been responded to,” says Mauser, whose experience with Columbine has turned him into a gun-control advocate. Mauser marshaled help from the Colorado congressional delegation in securing a response from the association, but says “they have never acknowledged me in any way that I know of.” In 2005, Mauser protested at NRA headquarters and was arrested for trespassing while carrying a sign reading, “My son died at Columbine, why won’t the NRA respond to my letter?” according to the Denver Post. That episode at least led to some interaction with the NRA: “The only time I really faced them was when they testified against me for trespassing,” he tells the Erik Wemple Blog.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.