A few folks in the semi-tony suburb of Wadsworth, Ohio, are up in arms over news that a gunsmith plans to open for business on Main Street. This case makes the job of teaching public relations so much easier. Hope my students read it!
Douglas Warren’s little gun shop poses no threat whatsoever to Wadsworth, unless, of course, you believe guns are inherently evil. Unfortunately for Warren, his business plan failed to address the small percentage of folks who suffer this firearms phobia. As irrational as that fear may be in this particular case, it isn’t going away no matter how much Mr. Warren protests. It’s a PR problem, and he needs to deal with it.
Those who oppose Warren say the store is too close to a school. Now, I seriously doubt Warren plans to stand on the street and peddle .38 specials to 12-year-old kids. But don’t tell that to his critics. They aren’t thinking or acting logically.
“With all the school shootings around the country, I think this brings the wrong message to the kids,” Jan Finneran told the Akron Beacon Journal. Leslie Georgiadis, president of the Wadsworth Home Youth and School (a “PTA-type group”), said: “I don’t know why they (Siara Arms) would want to be in the middle of town, right next to a school. It’s very disturbing.”
Finneran wants Warren to relocate his business because it sends the “wrong message,” Georgiadis because it’s “disturbing.” Like I said, this case is about emotion, not logic. No matter that Warren’s business is legal, legitimate, highly regulated and protected by local zoning laws.
The Wadsworth case illustrates a basic lesson students get in every one of my public relations classes at Kent State: When you deal with human behaviors, don’t count on logic to carry your message. People are more prone to act emotionally than rationally, especially when the issue is a controversial one like guns. As a PR professional, you factor that emotion into your plans, or ignore it at your peril.
Should Warren have anticipated such an explosive reaction? Absolutely. Had I been Warren’s PR counsel, I’d have warned him that any business involving guns is bound to draw some criticism. Although he has a legal right to locate his shop on Main Street USA, Warren’s business has a better chance of success if it has community consent. Never mind that he shouldn’t need that consent in a free society. That’s just your logical side getting in the way again. We’re talkin’ passion here, OK?
I’d have recommended Warren work with the zoning commission to host a public meeting to announce his plans before investing a lot of money in the new store. In short, I’d have told him to test the waters. His presentation would have included a thorough explanation of the store’s security system. It would also have documented his credentials as a licensed firearms dealer and credentialed gunsmith.
The meeting would have cost Warren nothing and would likely have saved him money in the long run. A public discussion would have allowed the community to weigh in with objections, most of which Warren could likely have accommodated. Without it, he faces a controversy that could delay the opening of his business and bring with it more bad publicity — two things he doesn’t need or deserve.
Should Warren be obligated to hold himself up to such public scrutiny? Of course not. But when even a small part of your public fears you, perception becomes reality. And you can’t ignore reality. It took front-page coverage in the Sunday paper for Warren to learn that lesson. Doug, if only you’d taken my class!
If you read this site regularly, you know that I’m a gun owner and a sportsman. Personally, I don’t think Warren is getting a fair shake. But I’m also a realist who knows a little bit about public opinion.
So I say to you Douglas Warren, good luck and Godspeed. The world needs competent gunsmiths. But to my students and colleagues I say, anticipate, anticipate, anticipate. When you least expect it, that fickle thing called human nature will jump up and bite you in the ass. Be ready.
Note: If you crave a more ardent 2nd-Amendment perspective, see David Codrea‘s take on this case.