A growing list of American businesses are severing ties with the National Rifle Association (NRA). But among its partners, arguably the most valuable is still by their side: Oklahoma-based Ackerman McQueen, the NRA’s longterm advertising and PR agency. For decades, this firm has honed the pro-gun narrative, establishing gun rights as a core value for conservative voters and as a pillar of America’s identity.
Today, our leading voice for motivation comes from a shoe brand. Independence is owned by a computer company. Extreme adventure is presented by an energy drink. Freedom is the territory of a gun rights organization.
To create a place for the NRA within the country’s decades-long national debate over mass shootings and gun violence, Ackerman McQueen helped transform it into a “news” organization. Creating its own content would give the advocacy group unlimited opportunities to insist that gun control was a question of freedom, more than safety. It would also help the NRA evade legal restrictions on political advertising.
Since 1999, years ahead the creation of YouTube, Ackerman McQueen adopted a strategy of opening dedicated media channels for its clients, first for its Williams Energy account (a natural gas company), and then for the NRA in 2004, opening NRA News. Brand-focused media channels were met with skepticism, according to the agency:
Brands were supposed to be advertisers, not news outlets. Journalism schools laughed at our philosophy, local stations thought it was cute and the media refused to see these brands as peers.
The brands who decided to become “their own media company,” explains the agency, “recognized that there was white space in a narrative that they could control with years-long dedication to owned storytelling.”
For the NRA, there was a second reason: In 2002, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act banned groups such as the NRA from advertising a month before a primary election, and 60 days before a general election. But the gun advocacy campaign could continue outside ads, Ackerman McQuinn realized. As the firm explains on a webpage detailing its job for the NRA, “if political free speech is restricted to news media, why not go deeper into the news business yourself?”
A news channel dedicated to “the most comprehensive video coverage of Second Amendment issues, events and culture,” was a perfect way to get around the ban, and engage directly with the grassroots supporters of the organization, who could tune into NRA News to hear a self-professed “unmatched authority, expertise and perspective on Second Amendment issues.”
The channel, and the ones that followed it, turning NRA News into NRA TV—a broader company comprising of four channels, including a women-focused one—consistently repeated the NRA’s argument that guns represented a fundamental US freedom. This message was repeated and spread by the channels’ on-air commentators, experts, advocates to a highly supportive audience.
Using that media channel, Ackerman McQueen has helped the NRA navigate the treacherous waters of mass shootings and public outrage. In the face of popular support for universal background checks, and statistics linking gun ownership to mass shootings, the NRA’s media organization has successfully spread alternative talking points.
After the Sandy Hook massacre of elementary-school children in Newtown, Connecticut, the NRA pushed forward, unchallenged on its own channels, a theory that the blame should fall on violent video games, not guns. In the days after last week’s massacre at a high school in Parkland, Florida, the same channels have argued that mental health and the lack of weapons in schools deserve the blame. Those arguments have been repeated at the highest levels of government.
Ackerman McQueen didn’t respond to Quartz’s request for comments or interviews.