It’s a packed house for fight night. On one side of the ring, gun-control advocates. On the other, pro-gun activists. In the middle, the referee gets ready to mediate. The PR teams of Target, Chipotle, Sonic, Starbucks and other stores who have made recent decisions to ban guns on their premises are in that referee position, so to speak. “Many Americans view the Second Amendment as absolute, so any compromise on gun rights becomes a deeply emotional topic,” says Brian Hart, founder of financial PR firm Flackable. “On the other hand, random gun violence has long been a tragic staple in urban and now suburban America.” Target’s decision to ask customers not to bring guns into stores came after a 400,000 signature petition submitted by Moms Demand Action, an activist group which has been rallying Target stores for months to take a stand on the issue. Many have been quick to point out that Target will not enforce the gun ban, and an excerpt of Target CEO John Mulligan’s official statement said:
As you’ve likely seen in the media, there has been a debate about whether guests in communities that permit “open carry” should be allowed to bring firearms into Target stores. Our approach has always been to follow local laws, and of course, we will continue to do so. But starting today we will also respectfully request that guests not bring firearms to Target – even in communities where it is permitted by law. This is a complicated issue, but it boils down to a simple belief: Bringing firearms to Target creates an environment that is at odds with the family-friendly shopping and work experience we strive to create.
PR teams have been careful to make the move as bipartisan as possible, citing safety and patron comfort as their top concerns. “Whether intended as a safety move or not, I think people will automatically see banning guns as a political move,” Beverly Storrs, public relations associate at Method Communications, says. “Making a political decision, such as banning guns or supporting equality, will automatically change how people see your brand.” Aaron Kilby, director of marketing and business development for Artisan Color, agrees. “When more than 400,000 people signed a petition, you have to answer them in some way,” he says. Recent decisions to ban guns have not been the only political stance brands have taken. Hobby Lobby, Autocam, and Eden Foods have made headlines lately by filing suits against the section of the Affordable Care Act that deals with contraceptive coverage. Chick-fil-A experienced a storm of backlash and support after its CEO made a statement about gay marriage. Oreo and several other companies have made gay pride statements within their branding, which has sparked both criticism and acclaim. Following Target’s gun ban statement, pro-gun activists such as Kory Watkins, who runs the Open Carry TC Twitter account, have pushed back by carrying guns into the restaurants and stores and snapping photos.
— Open Carry TC (@OpenCarryTC) July 2, 2014
However, just because PR teams have largely remained silent does not mean they are not actively part of the discussion. They’re constantly monitoring brand mentions and sentiment across traditional and social media to make sure things don’t get out of hand. Although many PR professionals may question whether or not taking a stance is the right move for a brand, it’s becoming increasingly hard to avoid. “The safest play for a national brand is to remain agnostic when it comes to partisan politics, but being safe isn’t always the best move,” Hart said, “Aligning with popular civil rights issues, such as gay marriage, can bolster a brand while strengthening its legacy.”