Social Media Blunder? Going Dark During A Crisis: NRA & Sandy Hook

Politics aside, the National Rifle Association (NRA) is a brand. Because of social media, the horrific Sandy Hook, CT school shooting this month was a PR crisis for the NRA in a different, more intense way than past violent events involving firearms.

Moments before the news broke on Friday 12/14/12, at 9:35AM EST the NRA Facebook page posted about a giveaway. Shortly thereafter, news outlets announced the Sandy Hook massacre that killed twenty-six people, including twenty children. That evening, the NRA took down their page. They withheld comment until they reactivated it on 12/18/12 with a post explaining their silence:

…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…

flames on black backgroundI see the reasoning for preventing intense flame wars:

“As a PR professional, it goes against my instincts and the recommendations I make to clients who stop posting on social media channels in times of crisis,” says Stu Opperman, chief strategist at Impact Players. “[But] with the nation’s collective emotions as raw as they were, any immediate post the NRA made, short of a complete reversal of their long-held position opposing nearly any form of gun control, would be demonized and seen as callous and unfeeling…” –prweekus.com 12/20/12

One could argue that going dark demonstrates a lack of understanding of social media (focus on transparency). The avoidant reaction was meant to halt the onslaught of an emotionally and politically charged conversation and the demand for a response they did not have.

Going Dark Sends Two Possible Messages

Message 1: We don’t know how to handle this crisis.

Could be interpreted as a blend of:
  1. Mea culpa (intentional or not)
  2. Silencing the conversation to avoid further controversy (a temporary and singular solution)
  3. Kneejerk reaction demonstrating lack of crisis management plan
Message 2: This is our crisis management plan.
My initial reaction: Hiding the page was not a sign of respect, as claimed. Merely having a Facebook page is not an implicit sanction or approval of current events, the opinions of its fans/detractors/page commenters, or a sign of anything more than having a second WEBSITE. Simply, a Facebook page is another brand website which enables more public conversations. Of course there is more risk involved. Is that risk the primary differentiator between your website and your page? I.e., NRA.org would not go down during a crisis. Techcrunch explains why merely disabling comments would not suffice – this makes sense.

Being present on social is not a switch you turn on and off as it suits your brand.

But was this instance an exception?

Retail analogy: Your Facebook page is your storefront – your business address. It’s what you post on that page (i.e., what you stock on your shelves or display in your windows) that sends a message.

Have a crisis gameplan. Learn from the multitude of social media blunders. This was new territory. What would you do?

*My sympathies go out to anyone grieving over this tragedy. This post is about social media and is not meant to take a stance on violence, gun control, or politics.

3 thoughts on “Social Media Blunder? Going Dark During A Crisis: NRA & Sandy Hook”

  1. I think they brilliantly used silence so that when they did finally speak, the message wouldn’t be lost in a cacophony of flame wars. Whether you agree with their plan or not, when they unveiled it at lasts week’s press conference, people actually heard it. And they heard it louder and clearer than the rest of the “ideas” that had been drowning each other out in the week prior. Just like in music, sometimes the silent rests are more important than the notes.

    1. John, I agree that the NRA was able to deliver its message effectively following the silence. The statement certainly would have been lost in flame wars if posted a few days earlier (and would propel embattled posts further). I don’t know if their hiding the Facebook page and going dark was brilliant or purposeful — maybe it was (scenario/message 2 above). Or maybe it just worked out well in the end, taking advantage of the news cycle and the public’s bated breath.

      Please note I am not here to opine about the NRA. The question I’m posing applies to any controversial brand in this type of situation.

      Unfortunately, this won’t be the last time a tragedy or a pivotal, politically charged moment puts this brand at the epicenter of controversy. Will they just take down the page every time they expect too much argumentative, heated conversation? Doesn’t that come with the territory of their brand? Maybe going dark is the best solution for them. It is a temporary one, though; the conversation will move elsewhere then return when it can. I like your music analogy, by the way.

  2. First, I almost didn’t post a comment, because I think John’s comment was perfect.

    That said, I think that they have a good strategy for the NRA.

    The NRA is different from most brands because their job is to argue for one side of an issue that is very polarizing. And, at a time like this, even the people who agree with them don’t want to be shouting it to the world.

    I think that we agree that going dark during a crisis is the wrong thing to do for most brands and in most situations. However, I think that they are the exception to the rule. (They aren’t selling anything, they don’t really have any competition, and they really aren’t going to change anyone’s mind—particularly after an event like this. This strategy might work for similar groups that take a side on a polarizing issue.)

    It should be noted that even if they were able to clearly get their message out to the public, many Americans don’t agree with the NRA’s current position. See the article that I tweeted today: [GOP pollster: “I don’t think the NRA is listening”]

    In the end, they made a call and it turned out okay for them. Now that the precedent has been set, I can see the NRA doing the same thing each time. And, to me, it makes sense.

Comments are closed.