A Little Media Advice for the ATF

While I write about guns here on TTAG, my main gig is as a marketing guy. As such, I have a little different perspective on a lot of news stories. I often-times see scandal-type stories through the prism of press releases, spin doctoring, and manufactured consent. And lemme tell ya, there’s two ways you can react when the excrement hits the rotating cooling device. The right way, and the wrong way. Care to guess which way the ATF chose?

Here’s the deal. When it’s SHTF time, you have a choice. You can circle the wagons, call all hands on deck, build your little stone wall around the perimeter, and hunker down for a long siege. Or you can grab the story by its horns, get on board and ride that sucker so you’re in the driver’s seat. Or saddle. (Lots o’ metaphors flying about. Hard to keep ’em straight.) A classic example of the right way to deal with a crisis would be Johnson & Johnson and the big Tylenol scare back in the 70s.

When some idiot forced packaging to change forever by poisoning several bottles of Tylenol, the head honchos at J & J faced a decision. Stonewall or get out in front? They chose the path less taken. They immediately called the first of several press conferences. In that presser, they acknowledged the problem, admitted they had no idea how it had happened, offered full cooperation with law enforcement, and announced concrete steps they had implemented to get the problem under control (in their case, a total recall of all Tylenol products). This is called “damage control,” and is a totally different response from the one most take, that of “deny, defend, and deny some more.”

In the following weeks, authorities rulled it a case of product tampering, absolving J & J from responsibility. Again, J & J took the right road. They announced the findings, and simultaneously announced new, tamperproof packaging. They slowly brought the brand back from the dead. Their strategy worked. Today, Tylenol is among the most recognizable, trusted brands in over-the-counter medicine. Many have forgotten all about the scandal. Because they chose to deal with the problem head-on, they saved their product, and quite possibly, their company.

Let’s contrast that to Peter Pan Peanut Butter. The parent company (We’re Beatrice!) was far more interested in branding their umbrella group than in paying attention to a product purity problem. (Say that three times, fast.) When their product made some people sick, they did the circle the wagons bit, and paid lip service to fixing the problem. Then the same problem hit again. This time, the FDA got involved. Peter Pan peanut butter disappeared from the shelves. Like millions of others, I switched brands. Peter Pan eventually returned from the Never-Neverland of damaged brands. But it’s no longer in contention for the top brand in the category. And like millions of other people, I won’t buy it ever again. Because their corporate response left a bad taste in my mouth that I won’t soon forget.

So lets talk ATF shall we?

Now you’d think with a United States Senator (Grassley), the might and power of Black Rock (CBS), and a growing number of online media outlets (welcome to the party, Drudge…what kept ya?), the ATF would be out in front on this story, trying their best to Get To The Bottom Of This! or at the very least, throw a few expendables under the proverbial bus to make it all go away. I can hear it now . . .

The ATF has discovered, much to our chagrin, that there are a few rogue agents within our organization that let their zealotry overcome their common sense. They took it upon themselves to implement a plan that led to tragedy for two Federal law enforcement officials. These individuals have been relieved of duty and will be prosecuted under the full extent of the law.

Yep. That might do it. If deftly-handled, where they would at least appear to be proactively helpful. But nooooooooooooooo! The ATF has conscripted a bunch of Conestoga Wagons straight off the set of Bonanza, and have hired the finest stonemasons to start a-buildin’ that wall. Witness the CBS follow-up to their initial report:

Public Information Officers:

Please make every effort for the next two weeks to maximize coverage of ATF operations/enforcement actions/arrests at the local and regional level. Given the negative coverage by CBS Evening News last week and upcoming events this week, the bureau should look for every opportunity to push coverage of good stories. Fortunately, the CBS story has not sparked any follow up coverage by mainstream media and seems to have fizzled.

It was shoddy reporting , as CBS failed to air on-the-record interviews by former ATF officials and HQ statements for attribution that expressed opposing views and explained the law and difficulties of firearm trafficking investigations. The CBS producer for the story made only a feigned effort at the 11th hour to reach ATF HQ for comment.

This week (To 3/1/2011), Attorney General Holder testifies on the Hill and likely will get questions about the allegations in the story. Also (The 3/3/2011), Mexico President Calderon will visit the White House and likely will testify on the Hill. He will probably draw attention to the lack of political support for demand letter 3 and Project Gunrunner.

ATF needs to proactively push positive stories this week, in an effort to preempt some negative reporting, or at minimum, lessen the coverage of such stories in the news cycle by replacing them with good stories about ATF. The more time we spend highlighting the great work of the agents through press releases and various media outreaches in the coming days and weeks, the better off we will be.

Thanks for your cooperation in this matter. If you have any significant operations that should get national media coverage, please reach out to the Public Affairs Division for support, coordination and clearance.

Thank you,


Scot L. Thomasson
Chief ATF Public
Affairs Division
Washington, DC
Desk 202-648-XXXX
Cell 206-XXX-XXXX

I dunno about you, but if I were ol’ Scotty, I’d ixnay the memos and instead of pretending the problem doesn’t exist, I’d concentrate on exposing it and demonstrating that the ATF will not put up with this kind of thing. Except that they DO put up with this kind of thing. In fact, they are all about this kind of thing.

The most disturbing thing in the memo is the line, Fortunately, the CBS story has not sparked any follow up coverage by mainstream media and seems to have fizzled. The question is, where’s the rest of the MSM on this story, and when will they get involved?

Be that as it may, the ATF’s unwillingness to follow the J & J crisis response model won’t help their case. But then, isn’t circling the wagons exactly what you’d expect from that bunch o’ cowboys?