When Crisis Happens, Here’s How Walmart, Dick’s Sporting Goods & Other Big Retailers Protect Their Reputations

The debate on gun violence has been reignited after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland, Fla., that killed 17 students and school employees, and left 14 injured on Feb. 14.

Accused gunman Nikolas Cruz, 19, used an AR-15 semi-automatic weapon-style during the rampage. According to authorities, Cruz had obtained around 10 rifles — and among his firearms was a gun purchased at Dick’s Sporting Goods (though he did not use the Dick’s weapon during the massacre).

The retailer, which sells sportswear, athletics equipment and footwear, announced on Wednesday that it will end selling assault-style weapons and raise its age requirement for purchasing guns to 21. Walmart, the biggest seller of guns in the U.S., quickly followed up with a similar announcement that same day, adding that it will no longer sell assault-style toys and air guns.

Privately-owned Bass Pro Shops, which purchased hunting and shooting retailer Cabela’s, is among the few national retailers that still sell assault-style rifles.

It’s a polarizing national issue — but politicians are acting too slowly, anti-gun violence advocates claim. With little legislative change being made, a social media boycott, hahstag #boycottnra (National Rifle Association is a gun-rights organization), has created a torrent of comments that has erupted on digital platforms and other media. Attention has also focused on national retail giants that sell assault-style guns.

Retailers that sell firearms are now in “crisis mode” and are strategizing reactions, according to crisis and reputation management expert Hersh Davis-Nitzberg, who started Repairbrandreputation.com — a company that has designed campaigns to improve the online and offline reputations of businesses and individuals for the past 10 years.

“You need to have a sophisticated response. You have a primary focus, which are stakeholders,” Davis-Nitzberg explained. “Who is it affecting and how does it affect my bottom line?”

Davis-Nitzberg said that many large corporations have crisis management experts working immediately to formulate a strategy when social and political issues arise and affect their business. Part of that effort includes analyzing how they can reach the public with the best messages for their targeted audience. For example, what works when communicating with millennial consumers is likely not as effective for older populations.

It took nearly two weeks — following the latest school shooting — for Dick’s and Walmart to announce new policies, but in the corporate sector, many companies need the time to execute strategies that involve quantifying information and dissecting psychographics and demographics, Davis-Nitzberg said. “There is no such thing as reacting too fast or slow as long as your reaction is a calculated one. If you simply react without doing the research you might get it wrong. If your reaction is well thought out and timed properly, then you have a much greater chance of getting it right.”

Part of the analysis, Davis-Nitzberg said, is to assess how much of their other business categories will be affected. For instance, a sporting goods retailer might thrive on sales of footwear and gear, with much less to lose if it abandons selling guns. “They’re able to look at it like, ‘I only sell one unit a year, and my reaction in this way will reach the people that are most likely to buy my products in a way that outweighs the revenue generated selling the [firearm] units.”

Companies such as Hertz and Delta, have ended their affiliation with the NRA’s programs. The NRA website currently sells private-label boots that utilize Vibram outsoles and Ortholite insoles. A request for comment from Vibram was not returned.

Last year in February, the NRA announced on its official Instagram page that it hosted a weekend-long event at Cabela’s to renew memberships and enroll new gun enthusiasts. Those who participated received a $25 gift card to the retailer, according to the Instagram post. A request for comment was not returned by Cabela’s parent company Bass Pro Shops.

When businesses participate in cross-marketing efforts, affiliations and joint programs, they also need to evaluate whether they should react in crisis situations that might engulf them in controversy, Davis-Nitzberg said. “Someone with cross-marketing needs to see how it plays out and have a couple of ways to address the issue.”

“Reputation and how people see things is a perception issue. A big part of that establishes the brand you want to establish — and reputation marketing protects you from what may happen. Whatever negative things come about don’t get as much traction if you have a strong brand and a strong message.”

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