How the NRA might repair its reputation

  • Major companies are distancing themselves from the NRA after the Feb. 14 massacre of 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Florida.
  • Public relations experts explain how the gun lobbying group could improve its image.

People sign up at the booth for the National Rifle Association (NRA) at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Maryland, February 23, 2018.
Joshua Roberts | Reuters
People sign up at the booth for the National Rifle Association (NRA) at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Maryland, February 23, 2018.

Since the Feb. 14 massacre of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the National Rifle Association has taken hits from survivors and from major businesses.

Among the actions: Delta Air Lines and United Airlines have discontinued their discounts for NRA members, as have insurance company MetLife and car rental companies Avis and Hertz. Dick's Sporting Goods announced that it will no longer sell high-capacity magazines or assault rifles and raised its minimum age to purchase a firearm to 21.

The question arises: Can the nation's largest advocate for gun rights, which prides itself on defending liberties and the Second Amendment, improve its image? The organization did not return CNBC's request for comment.

At least a few observers say yes. DeeAnn Sims, founder and creative director of the SPBX public relations firm in Los Angeles, said the organization's problem can be addressed with a few proactive steps.

"First, members who are speaking to the press and making public appearances should definitely invest in media training," Sims told CNBC.

"Second, the organization's overall image could benefit from a total rebrand. This should include everything from a positive tag line to partnering with a nonprofit partner," she added. "Lastly, I would suggest running a national [public service announcement] about gun safety and investing in a message that suggests they not only recognize a problem, but that they care about these issues."

National Rifle Association spokeswoman Dana Loesch speaks during CPAC 2018 February 22, 2018 in National Harbor, Maryland.
Alex Wong | Getty Images
National Rifle Association spokeswoman Dana Loesch speaks during CPAC 2018 February 22, 2018 in National Harbor, Maryland.

Clean house? Maybe not

Brad Chase of Chase Global Media Group suggested that the NRA change its approach. Chase is the author of a Change.org petition asking Amazon to remove NRA TV from its streaming service and website.

"They need to fire their communications team," he said. "Bring in gun owners and non-gun owners alike who will staunchly defend the Second Amendment, but also accept the fact that it needs to be updated to be compatible with 21st-century life."

Jeff Bishop, an attorney from Virginia and an NRA member since 1992, said a public relations makeover would have little value to the organization — if any.

"Shortly after the Las Vegas massacre, they came out for some modest regulations, such as banning bump stocks and making significant fixes to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which had failed to catch several previous mass shooters it probably should have caught," Bishop said.

"These reasonable proposals gained the NRA zero goodwill among gun control advocates, but did anger many 'no-compromise' [members] who already viewed the organization as corporate sellouts," he added.

In addition, recent data suggest that actions against the gun lobbying group can cut both ways. According to a poll by the market research company Morning Consult, companies that severed ties with the NRA actually suffered a backlash.

"Despite increased media scrutiny since the Parkland shooting, our polling finds the NRA continues to perform well among a plurality of Americans, and the organization's core base: Republicans," said Michael Ramlet, Morning Consult's CEO.

Reflective of the polarized environment, the polling also showed a sharp split along party lines.

"The number of Republicans who viewed MetLife unfavorably leaped from 10 percent to 44 percent after learning of the company's decision to end ties with the NRA, while Democrats' favorability with MetLife increased from 49 percent to 68 percent," Ramlet said.

Rocky Pollington, a marketing director at UglyBadger Media, said that if companies like MetLife are seeing blowback, it comes with the territory when a business decides to take a stand.

"There is a balance that businesses need to have when deciding to make a political statement," Pollington said. "Making a public announcement [that may] alienate a portion of your customer base is a very risky move that they should be aware of, and accept the results."

Yet if the NRA really wants to improve its image without abandoning its principles, it should attempt to be somewhat less partisan, Bishop told CNBC.

"All too often it gets mixed up with conservative causes generally, as if the 'R' in its name stood for 'Republican,'" he said.