The teen-aged survivors of the Parkland high school mass shooting may have run one of the most powerful public relations campaigns ever. More than a few PR professionals are wowed by the students’ campaign on gun control. PR pros can learn some lessons from them, they say.
The students began holding media interviews and social media posts almost immediately following the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left 17 people dead and 17 wounded. The students then conducted a rally for gun restrictions at the Florida state capital. Their emotional appeals resulted in a new law with stricter gun limits in Florida. No other gun restrictions group has achieved such tangible results in such a short period of time. The Sandy Hook parents group has also prompted significant gun control measures in Connecticut using tactics similar to but less flamboyant than the Parkland students.
The Parkland students organized walkouts at schools across the country. Students from more than 2,800 schools left their classrooms on March 14 to highlight the horror of gun violence and push political leaders to enact gun control measures. Following the walkouts, they organized March for Our Lives rallies in Washington, DC, and other cities that drew hundreds of thousands.
“This is more than just a march. This is more than just one day … this is a movement,” Parkland survivor Delaney Tarr, 17, told the crowd in Washington. Tarr said the country needs gun laws that are “more than a Band-Aid on a broken bone.”
Thousands of media outlets around the world covered the protests live. As The New York Times stated, the protesting students seemed to be everywhere — on social media, on television and in communities. Through traditional media and social media posts, Parkland students delivered their well-reasoned and emotional gun control messages to millions of people. The students made clear that they intended to use their votes to oust legislators who sided with the National Rifle Association (NRA) and gun manufacturers.
The coverage was so prevalent, so widely disseminated, and so well organized, it’s doubtful that a $5 million public relations campaign created by a multinational PR firm could generate as much positive earned media as the student-run and student-led activities, says PR professional Robert Wynne, writing in Forbes.
Partly because of the students’ efforts, many large corporations terminated relationships with the National Rifle Association (NRA). Dick’s stopped selling assault weapons and will no longer sell guns to people younger than 21.
PR experts cite these reasons to explain why the students were making an impact:
A clear and passionate message. The media responds when you have passion, a clear objective and speak in a forthright and honest manner, writes Stan Steinreich, president and CEO of Steinreich Communications, on his blog. “These young people have that clarity and passion, and it influences others,” Steinreich asserts
Authenticity. The students agreed on broad steps and specific words to articulate their goals, but their interviews were very raw and real, says Dorothy Crenshaw of Crenshaw Communications. They reportedly rejected scripted statements and simply voiced their anger and grief toward the adults who had failed to protect them
Social media expertise. Social media played a major role in their success. Observers say the teens are innately familiar with social media. One survivor invented the hashtag #neveragain and asked everyone on his social feeds to share and retweet the hashtag at exactly the same time the following Friday.
Power of events. The students organized multiple events that attracted media attention and the opportunity to deliver their messages on gun sale restrictions and to attract influencers to their cause. The events were organized so that they would attract both national and local media. The local events enabled local students to join the voices of the Parkland students.
Keeping the story alive. Keeping the message alive poses a frequent challenge. Messages soon fade from public view as reporters move on to the next story. Knowing that reporters would want fresh faces to interview, the students organized a deep bench of media-savvy students and split them up among the media according to message and personality, Crenshaw notes. Most importantly, they began planning media-oriented events that would bring a fresh take on the story for journalists and news crews.
Persistence. The students remain persistent. They have yet to show signs of slowing. Thousands of media outlets around the world covered the protests live. “We cannot move on. If we move on, the NRA and those against us will win. They want us to forget,” Tarr said at the Washington rally. “Today and every day we will continue to fight for those things that are right.” The students seem to recognize that changing opinions and attitudes on issues such as women’s suffrage, civil rights and gun control can take years and sometime decades. Fomenting change requires consistent pressure.
The soundbite. One student called himself and his peers the “mass shooting generation.” “If that doesn’t stick, in people’s minds, nothing will,” says Amy George, owner of By George Communications. “The key to the soundbite is practice, practice, practice,” George writes in Inc. The more interviews you do, the better you become. Other tips: Write down talking points but keep them short. Think of them as headlines — short and punchy. Talking points are meant to be brief reminders, not entire speeches. Learn the talking points by rehearsing them and then put away the written notes.
Bottom Line: Parkland high school students impressed PR veterans with their public relations campaign for gun restrictions. Their poise during media interviews, social media expertise and passionate message helped create one of the most effective PR campaigns in recent memory.
William J. Comcowich founded and served as CEO of CyberAlert LLC, the predecessor of Glean.info. He is currently serving as Interim CEO and member of the Board of Directors. Glean.info provides customized media monitoring, media measurement and analytics solutions across all types of traditional and social media.