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Ad agency has NRA’s back with hard-hitting PR

Firm behind lobby's most provocative ads reaps millions of dollars in contracts along way

by Peter Finn and Sari Horwitz

The Washington Post

“Are the president’s kids more important than yours?” the deep and dramatic-sounding voice intoned. “Then why is he skeptical about putting armed security in our schools when his kids are protected by armed guards at their school?”

When the National Rifle Association aired its 35-second TV spot last month, suggesting that President Barack Obama has a double standard on school security and seemingly using his daughters as props, the White House quickly labeled it “repugnant and cowardly.” But the commercial was another in a long line of bare-knuckled NRA advertisements, many of them controversial but also compelling attacks that have come to define the organization.

Decade after decade, these provocative broadsides have been the product of one of the longest collaborations in the history of advertising, and they have all originated from the same advertising and public relations agency, Oklahoma City-based Ackerman McQueen, and its Alexandria, Virginia, subsidiary, the Mercury Group.

Ackerman McQueen has managed the NRA’s image and helped fight its political wars for more than 30 years. The ad agency played a pivotal role in its transformation from a sportsman’s group to one of Washington’s most powerful lobbying organizations, shaping a message rooted in uncompromising combativeness, securing its influence inside the NRA and reaping millions of dollars in contracts.

The agency’s mission has perhaps never been more important than it is now. With the issue of gun control thrust back into the public spotlight by the school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, and Obama’s repeated pleas for Congress to act on new regulations in his State of the Union speech last Tuesday, the NRA is under attack again.

As it has in other times of crisis for the organization, Ackerman McQueen is scripting a counteroffensive.

“They are very effective at what they do,” said Warren Cassidy, a former executive vice president of the NRA. “They have refined a message that is able to strike hard.”

In addition to honing an unyielding public message, Ackerman McQueen has fought in the NRA’s sometimes pitched internal turf battles, pollinated the group with its own people, and earned tens of millions of dollars for its services, according to public records and former NRA executives.

The agency has been instrumental in the rise of Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s current executive vice president. The nondescript and introverted LaPierre was transformed into the bespoke and unyielding face of the group under the tutelage of Ackerman McQueen, said Richard Feldman, a former NRA lobbyist.

“Wayne LaPierre couldn’t have given a speech 25 years ago to save his life,” Feldman said. “Now he gives a very effective speech to the NRA membership. It’s a testament to how effective Ackerman McQueen is. And it’s a testament that education works.”

Angus McQueen, the chief executive officer of Ackerman McQueen, declined an interview request for this article. The Mercury Group and the NRA did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

But interviews with former NRA members and others, coupled with public records, provide an account of how a single ad agency, far from Madison Avenue, parlayed its skills and no-holds-barred attitude to significantly influence the national debate over gun control.

For a firm that continues to handle mostly local accounts — the Oklahoma City Convention and Visitors Bureau, for example — Ackerman McQueen has had an unlikely, lucrative and sometimes bumpy ride in its role as a go-to bruiser in the national debate about guns.

When Harlon Carter, the executive vice president of the NRA in the early 1980s, decided to hire an outside ad agency, the organization settled on Ackerman McQueen because some of the competing New York-based firms “didn’t know which end of the gun the bullet came out of,” according to a biography of Ray Ackerman, a cofounder of the Oklahoma firm.

Ackerman McQueen made its mark quickly. To bolster its brand, the NRA had been considering a campaign around ordinary citizens holding their favorite guns, with the tag line “I am the gun lobby.” For some in the group, however, the idea of describing the organization as a lobby, a term associated with Washington, was unsettling.

Ackerman McQueen proposed using celebrities and a less politically charged catchphrase: “I am the NRA.” The idea was that the group was diverse, and that its members didn’t reflect Americans’ stereotypical ideas of gun owners.

“It got a lot of attention,” said John Aquilino, a former director of public affairs for the NRA’s lobbying arm. “Just like any ad agency, they schmoozed with the client, making sure the client wouldn’t switch. They were in.”

By the mid-1980s, during a successful campaign to scale back some of the provisions of the 1968 Gun Control Act, Ackerman McQueen staff members had begun moving into the second floor of the NRA’s headquarters in Washington. And before long, the NRA’s in-house public affairs staff, including Aquilino, was fired en masse, their jobs outsourced to Ackerman McQueen.

The agency took an increasing role in fundraising and grooming senior NRA officials for public appearances.

“They had an awful lot of control,” said Jeff Knox, the son of a former NRA executive who clashed with Ackerman McQueen over its high fees.

The NRA advertising produced by “Ack-Mac,” as the firm is sometimes called, gradually became more hard-edged.

“Should you shoot a rapist before he cuts your throat?” asked one ad that showed an assailant wearing a nylon-stocking mask. “American women” the ad continued, “are realizing that they must take responsibility for their own self-defense.”

Another spot showed an elderly woman being assaulted on her front stoop. “If you’re attacked on your porch, do you want your neighbors to be opposed to gun ownership, or members of the NRA?”

In 1995, when President Bill Clinton supported crime legislation that included new gun-control measures, Ackerman McQueen responded with one of its more incendiary print advertisements, suggesting that the legislation would permit the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to “intensify its reign of storm trooper tactics.” The full-page ad, which ran in The Washington Post, among other publications, showed federal agents in black SWAT gear bearing submachine guns and bursting into a home.

The headline: “Tell the Clinton White House to stay out of your House.”

At the same time, in a fundraising letter, the NRA alleged that a Clinton administration ban on semiautomatic weapons “gives jack-booted government thugs more power to take away our constitutional rights, break in our doors, seize our guns, destroy our property and even injure or kill us.”

The letter was signed by LaPierre but written by Ackerman McQueen, former NRA executives said.

“Not too long ago,” the letter continued, “it was unthinkable for federal agents wearing Nazi bucket helmets and black storm trooper uniforms to attack law-abiding citizens. Not today.”

The following month, the federal building in downtown Oklahoma City was bombed. Two weeks later, former president George Bush sent the NRA a letter to say that he was canceling his membership.

Bush noted that among those killed in the bombing was a Secret Service agent who had once served on his security team. “He was no Nazi,” the former president wrote. The NRA’s “broadside against Federal agents deeply offends my own sense of decency and honor; and it offends my concept of service to country.”

Said Feldman, the former lobbyist, in his book “Ricochet: Confessions of a Gun Lobbyist,” “The advertisement and Wayne’s harsh words were poorly timed.”

By the late 1990s, there was growing unease in the NRA about the amount of money Ackerman McQueen was earning. In addition to retaining a no-contract flat monthly fee of approximately $80,000, the firm was earning potentially much more from commissions for fundraising drives and the placement of advertising, according to former NRA executives and members.

One senior NRA executive, Jim Baker, distrusted Ackerman McQueen so much that he had his office swept for bugs, Feldman said. Neal Knox, then the first vice president of the NRA, ordered LaPierre to fire the agency. But in the end, it was Ackerman McQueen that managed to sideline Knox.

“If you are a company that has a client that is your golden goose, you are going to do what you can to maintain that client,” said Jeff Knox, Neal’s son, who remains an NRA member.

Although LaPierre said he had carried out the order, he instead teamed up with Tony Makris, president of the Mercury Group, to have Knox replaced with actor Charlton Heston.

Makris and LaPierre had been friends since the early 1980s, former executives said. And LaPierre’s wife has worked at the Mercury Group.

“With the help of Ackerman McQueen, (LaPierre) accused Knox of ‘rightwing extremism’ and claimed that his majority board members wanted to turn the NRA into a ‘militia-type organization,’ ” Feldman later wrote.

With Knox gone, Ackerman McQueen and the Mercury Group retained their lucrative contract. The Oklahoma firm also briefly picked up the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which represents gun manufacturers and had been threatened with lawsuits by city governments in the late ’90s.

At one point, Ackerman McQueen prepared an advertisement that showed the stars and stripes being ripped from an American flag as a voice-over alleged that big-city mayors and their greedy lawyers were attempting to destroy an industry that had won world wars.

Makris said on his company’s website that the Mercury Group doesn’t do soft PR.

“We don’t book tours or movie premieres,” he said. “We work for people in the middle of a fight they need to win.”

More recently, the Mercury Group led the NRA’s campaign that targeted voters in key states in the 2000 presidential campaign, with a blizzard of ads whose tag line was “Vote Freedom First.” On its website, the Alexandria, Virginia, firm claims that its work was “nationally recognized as a key factor” in defeating Al Gore.

For some former insiders, the NRA in the interceding years has become very much like the organization LaPierre accused Knox of leading: fundamentalist in its approach and of appeal only to its core supporters.

“I think there are millions and millions of moderate Second Amendment supporters, and the NRA does not speak to them,” Cassidy said.

For other critics of Ackerman McQueen, the ad about school security was only the latest disturbing sign. Many note that even Baker, one of the NRA’s top lobbyists, conceded it was “ill-advised.”

But Bill Connor, a coprincipal of Oratorio, a Washington media and presentation training firm, said the ad did exactly what the NRA wanted.

“You can look at something like the ad with Obama’s children and you can be appalled by that,” he said. “But if you step back and say that they are not trying to reach someone inside the Beltway, they’re trying to reach the base, it has proven to be an effective approach. They are skillful at doing what they want to do: get more members.”