How to respond when your product is used in a mass shooting

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Photo of bump-stock accessory affixed to a semiautomatic rifle

Associated Press


PR Puzzler logoAn organization that gets dragged into a tragedy needs to show heart. But Slide Fire Solutions, the prime source for “bump stock” accessories for semiautomatic rifles, has maintained silence since the Las Vegas massacre — except to say that it has not been able to keep up with demand since the shooting put their product on brilliant display.

Slide Fire is part of an industry that has blossomed since the semiautomatic rifle ban expired in 2004. Accessories for these weapons, which are designed for combat, has enriched many, including Jeremiah Cottle, the Slide Fire inventor. He sunk his savings into his brainchild, which uses the rifle’s recoil to engage the trigger, simulating a machine gun. Cottle described his success story to media when he was building awareness of the product, but has clammed up tight since the Las Vegas shooting.
In those earlier interviews, Cottle said he won federal approval of his device by describing it as an aid for people who had physical disabilities. But his company’s website and Facebook page tout the gadget as a way to experience the joy of a machine gun without the hassle of getting the necessary permits and paying $20,000 for one.
So many enthusiasts bought the bump-stock accessory for a couple of hundred bucks apiece that Cottle and his family recorded $10 million in sales the first year. The item remained under the radar, though. It was criticized as a novelty because it interfered with accuracy. One arms dealer said he had sold only a couple of the devices before this week — and now he can’t keep enough in stock.

Good or bad PR?

I’m setting aside my personal opinion about the ethics of such a business. From a strictly public relations standpoint, the usual advice is that a company state its concern for the illegal use of its product, express sympathy for the victims and make some kind of statement about assisting in any way to ensure it never happens again.
But, then, maybe Slide Fire is following the advice of the NRA. According to a review by Politico, the NRA typically goes silent in the days following a mass shooting (for those of you under 30, there was a time when there weren’t many “days after mass shootings” for reporters to review). They stop posting on their social media accounts, which typically see 10 posts a day. They don’t respond to media inquiries.
I totally get the NRA strategy. They gain nothing by being a part of mass shooting stories. Plus, they have lawmakers who will make statements on their behalf: “let’s not politicize this strategy,” is the key message.
I still wouldn’t recommend that a company such as Slide Fire follow that approach. By standing back, they allow themselves to lose all influence on what is said about them. And what is said, eventually, will affect them. The bump-stock business may be wiped out or severely curtailed by legislation — even the NRA has come out saying regulation should be considered.
I  may be wrong. It’s possible that a company in the firearms business does not need to show caring and heart. Maybe Slide Fire will emerge from this a lasting, revered brand like Smith & Wesson and people someday will have commemorative bump stocks in their arms collections. But I hope not.
Each week, PR Puzzler highlights public relations issues in the news. It is written by Steve Krizman, principle of Connected Communication, LLC. PR Puzzler items result from discussions he has with his PR students at Metropolitan State University of Denver.

Steve Krizman is a communication and PR change agent who has led innovation in health care, journalism, and higher education. He currently is a tenure-track professor of PR and journalism at Metropolitan State University of Denver. Steve is sole proprietor of Connected Communication, LLC, a consultancy that helps organizations develop integrated PR, communication, and marketing programs. His particular expertise is in the health industry, including insurance, health delivery systems, and digital health.

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