Deflect PR Trouble by Being Proactive

Years ago I had a client who couldn’t seem to clue into the self-serving value of charity. Being charitable & generous tends to be smart business strategy- it pays back later, and pays back big. When this client encountered a bit of a PR issue, he had no ‘give room’ or public goodwill, to use to offset his transgressions.

At this time of year, many folks feel generous  – of spirit and of wallet- so I ask you to consider these situations:

Starbucks has done a great deal to raise the idea of ‘fair trade’ of coffee beans and to heighten the exposure of ‘world music’ to a well-heeled audience who may then but buy CD’s from lesser-known musicians, thereby encouraging their entrepreneurial spirit & elevating their sense of self-worth. Let’s face it- there are few other ways that the “Aboriginal Bolivian Highland Pan Music & Reed Weavers of Lake Titicaca” would otherwise be heard by 10 Million wealthy Westerners, sipping a “gron-day double-soy Caramel Frappuccino, with extra vanilla”.  So when last week it was disclosed that Starbucks has been playing a global tax evasion shuffle, relocating virtually all profit made on $5B in sales at 700+ UK outlets, to no-tax havens, they had some ‘wiggle room’ in consumers’ minds. The Globe headline read “Britons outraged” yet I bet that Latte-lovers didn’t stop buying; Starbucks had fed their loyalists an ‘out’ – ie all the other good works done by the caffeine-pumping giant.

In Canada, the brewing giants & liquor oligopoly players & their downstream monopolies frequently face the threat of conversion to an open market, yet they somehow repeatedly kill that threat. A free market would undoubtedly would mean more selection, better prices & availability, and be more favourable to innovation- small brewers, distillers, startups, etc. Yet the status quo booze players have managed to show consumers that the current system is safe!- investing year after year in “Don’t Drink & Drive” campaigns, and touting how the system minimizes the risk of underage drinkers. Fear is an effective motivator; we fear the possibility of young adults drinking & driving after some under-scrutinizing convenience store clerk sells them a six pack for the road. These firms have seen the light of goodwill; that gives them some ‘buffer room’ in the public forum.

In contrast, Sturm Ruger, Smith & Wesson, the Freedom Group. Not at all proactive on gun safety. Marketers of both legitimately ‘safety/defensive’ guns and those that are irresponsible eg semi automatic ‘recreational’ weapons. When the USA does pass legislation soon to ‘combat the combat arms industry’, these firms will have earned their punishment. For decades they’ve been unapologetically pocketing extra profit by hawking ‘incremental units’ of what are essentially military grade weapons- to casual recreational users. These military weapons serve no legitimate role in realistic self defense or hunting. Gangs use them in drive-by shootings; criminals use them against police forces; and, even more tragically, lunatics use them to commit massive harm against unarmed innocents, including children.

Sturm, Smith, and Cerberus Capital (NYC-based Private Equity firm whose ‘Freedom Group’ owns DPMS, Bushmaster, Remington) could done much more to get in front of this risk and minimize it. That proactivity might have meant them supporting more aggressive prechecks (fewer ‘impulse’ sales), maybe more post-sale tracking, and they may have had to settle for somewhat lower unit sales & profits. But what’s looming now isn’t minimal. It’ll leverage strong, legitimate broadscale public outrage after Sandy Hook, and it’ll mean a significant cutback in the ‘guns for fun & lunatics’ market these firms have milked as a cash cow.

Sturm, Smith and the Freedom Group lovingly cater to the NRA, Hunting & Rec communities, but they essentially ignore the views & interests of the public at large. By failing to do that, now that there is a battle looming, they’ll find that they have no rounds in the chamber.

Given the looming threat of new legislation, gun shops are gleefully selling out of every semiautomatic weapon they’ve got- a run on guns; would-be ‘recreational’ owners are buying now, before access becomes restricted. That’s irony! Smith, Sturm, Freedom, etc may soon see their best quarterly profits ever. Do you think they’ve shown the taste & common sense to ask retailers to tighten those pre-checks, given the recent tragedy? If you do, then you’re either just hopeful, or just not savvy as to what constitutes ‘long term wisdom’ at firearms firms.

[Lest you think I'm an anti-gun advocate, I've fired rifles, shotguns, pistols, etc throughout my life. The context: Hunting as young man; 'rental' guns on Closed Ranges as an adult. The firearms industry will continue to exist- but i.m.o. the only place for semi-auto/automatic weapons is with the military, and perhaps on fully controlled, highly secure ranges. Not at someone's residence. Not in a vehicle. Not in urban areas. And, at minimum, not available for anyone to buy without a thorough background check and full post-purchase follow-up tracking provision.]


Steven Litt