Truly the right spokesPeRson

Francine Wheeler, Newtown, CT

Francine Wheeler, Newtown, CT

Score one for Obama’s PR team.

Alongside the national debate on gun control is a public relations war being waged on both sides. I’ve written that while the National Rifle Association’s messaging appeals to its base, the organization risks losing support among the less radical gun rights supporters.  Proponents of new gun control laws have used parents of the Sandy Hook Elementary School victims in their efforts, as did President Obama.  For the first time in his presidency, he turned over his weekly address to Francine Wheeler, whose 6-year-old son, Ben, was one of the 20 children killed in Newtown, Connecticut last December.

According to the Washington Post, “Wheeler’s remarks are a heart-wrenching capstone to a week of intense lobbying in Washington by parents of children slaughtered at Sandy Hook… After Obama issued a forceful call for swift action during a campaign-style rally in Connecticut on Monday, he brought about a dozen Sandy Hook parents with him to Washington aboard Air Force One.  The parents spent the week meeting personally with senators to lobby them to support stricter gun laws…”

We know how essential the right spokesperson can be when endeavoring to influence opinion.  For example, BP CEO Tony (“I’d like my life back“) Heyward handled things poorly during the Gulf oil spill crisis, and questions of “good spokesmanship” were raised when CEO Greg Creed defended Taco Bell’s recipe in 2011.  But no matter which side of the gun issue you’re on, I don’t think you can find a more powerful spokesperson than the mother of a murdered child.

If you’re alarmed that these people are being used, don’t be.  They have become willing representatives of the 100,000 Americans murdered or injured each year by guns.  Gun control proponents are very smart to appropriately use their most powerful public relations weapon–in this case, the Sandy Hook parents–if they’re going to have any chance of seeing changes in the nation’s gun laws.

The right representative is essential when working to shape opinions.  Francine Wheeler was, indeed, an emotional spokesperson–and the right one for this cause.  Your thoughts?

44 thoughts on “Truly the right spokesPeRson

  1. Erica Barnes

    Using these parents as spokespeople for gun control was possibly the best PR choice Obama and the movement could have made. There is nothing more heartwrenching than death, and listening to a parent grieve the loss of their 6 year old child is possibly the most touching of all. A situation like this doesn’t need high profile celebrities or media experts, it needs a spokesperson that can create sympathy.

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  2. Alex Packer

    Although these parents may not be experts on gun laws, gun violence statistics, or communicating at a professional level nothing is as effective as passion in persuading someone. As I wrote the previous sentence an excellent, although dark, example came to mind, Hitler. I’m sure most of us have seen the old clips of Hitler addressing the German public; while I’m also sure most of us had no clue what he was saying, we can all clearly see from the way he flailed his arms about and shouted continuously at the top of his lungs that he damn well meant whatever he was saying. History plainly shows that passion, even in the absence of logic, can move an entire nation of people; and Hitler is still regarded as one of history’s most effective orators.

    Alright, I realize that there is absolutely no connection between Hitler’s efforts and those of the Sandy Hook Victims’ parents. I used to example solely to illustrate how effective unabated passion can be. As for gun-laws, I don’t really have a stance. I believe in our constitutional right to protect ourselves, but can’t help but be scared by the fact that any disgruntled individual with a gun is a killing machine. Even though I do not feel strongly about this issue, I can not help but sympathize with the efforts of the parents, and hope very much to see them successful to whatever degree they can be. These parents deserve whatever it is they seek to help put their minds at ease; no parent should have to bury their child.

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  3. Kristen Kelly

    I 100% agree that Francine Wheeler was a great spokesperson for this cause. Having someone represent a side who TRULY believes in it and connects emotionally is stronger than having any celebrity do it for the hell of it. By using an everyday mother who has gone through a tragedy makes it more relatable for someone whose looking in from the outside. It’s more attention grabbing and appeals to those who can make the connection between themselves having children.

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  4. Mara Ruocco

    I agree with you. I think that things are always much more affective when they’re real and for the most part audiences are good at understanding when something is genuine. Using the parents as spokespeople is a great way to really touch individuals and make the understand the intensity of the situation.

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  5. Brittni Hicks

    I agree that she was the perfect spokesperson for this topic. She can directly relate to her audience and the cause she is fighting for. She is passionate about her fight, for obvious reasons. I think viewers want to see that in a spokesperson and Francine Wheeler demonstrated this well.

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  6. aunaturalenyc

    Choosing the right spokesperson is very crucial! They definitely made the right move choosing Wheeler. This reminds me of what my dad (Ray Dempsey) had to do and how it effected the company. You don’t have to be a PR expert to convey the correct image for a company, organization, or idea.

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  7. alexis gionesi

    I think they made the right choice for Francine Wheeler to be their spokesperson. While it was emotional, it gave a true example of why guns laws should be changed. If anyone could get this point across, it would be someone who has been directly affected. I don’t think it was wrong at all for it was her own choice, and while it may be emotional for her, she probably wanted to do this so more people don’t have to go through what she has gone through.

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  8. Mia D'Angelo

    I agree, a spokesperson can make or break a company/image/campaign. We see this (mostly negative) often times with celebrities for example, Lindsay Lohan, Tiger Woods, Amanda Bynes, etc. Sandy Hook is very near and dear to my heart since I live five minutes from the school and know victims and families personally. In this case I feel that having the victims speak is a very good way to spread the message and gain support. This post, I feel, touches on the larger topic of Public Relations ethics. How far is too far? When is it time to step back? These people are not being forced to comment on this issue-as it was stated in the blog. If they were and their privacy was being compromised to push an agenda that would be a different issue, but in this case I feel that having the victims of this tragedy willingly speak is effective and important to promote change.

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  9. Kellianne

    What a great PR move! Nobody is going to look at a group of parents who lost innocent children and fight with them. Although it might not change their opinion, it’s a great attempt! Using tools such as this in a campaign is very smart to do. Kudos to the Obama PR team!

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  10. kerrischreiber

    I agree that Wheeler was the right spokesperson from this. Emotion hits home with many and is a great public relations tool to use in order to capture attention. In this case, sympathy is key because that is all how we should feel for these parents. The thought of losing a child is unbearable especially in the way that the Sandy Hook parents experienced. PR professional or not, what the public wants is something real, end of story.

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  11. Lola Odejobi

    Francine Wheeler was the ideal person to speak about gun control laws. A parent of a child that was taken away in such a violent matter can make a difference. Some said that these parents are being used as props by the Democrats to convince people that stricter gun laws should be passed but these parents did volunteer to do this. I think Francine Wheeler is very brave because I know I couldn’t have done it. I agree that this tactic was a great way to bring awareness to gun violence.

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  12. Jeremy Beck

    If somebody is trying to make a point, it is always better to appeal to peoples emotions than to hear a disconnected talking head discuss the issue. In this case, it is an overpowering emotional response that Francine Wheeler elicits because she knows firsthand the damage that guns can do and she is brave enough to speak out about the issue amidst her own horrible tragedy.

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  13. Helen Masha

    I think that it is good PR to let people with personal experience be a spokesperson for an issue. The point of PR is to be relatable and speak in a way that will call to action and having someone such as Francine Wheeler speak is a good way to achieve those goals. People like Francine have personal experience to back up the President’s position on gun control and that is a good example of PR.

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  14. aciardullo

    I definitely agree that Francine Wheeler was a perfect spokesperson in this case. While she is not a Public Relations expert, she experienced this first hand and knows exactly what she is talking about and people can relate to her — which is the job of a PR professional. She can express more emotions and connect to people better as well. It is also hard to deny someone who has had to deal with losing a child the way she did; it is impossibly to not sympathize for her and want to help.

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  15. LucieSorel

    This was definitely and extremely emotional talk. No one wants to face the grief and unimaginable loss of the sandy hook parents, however, they make good a good spokesperson for the cause. This mother is relatable to many parents because she was white, average age, and looked like a mother everyone knows. In that department Francine Wheeler was a good choice for the talk. Francine didn’t appear to be influential enough since the vote for stricter gun control laws didn’t pass this week. I think it would beneficial for the president to take a different approach to influencing Americans.

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  16. Brenna Harran

    After watching Francine Wheeler and her husband in The White House’s weekly address, I think they were the right people to speak on this cause. Out of all the people to talk about this issue, Francine has first hand experience with the effects of guns. I think this was appropriate and she was a great speaker.

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  17. blarouche

    I think that someone with personal experience makes the best candidate for a spokesperson . While it’s sad that the personal experience in this instance was traumatic, these parents have an understandable reason to give them drive to pursue change. Obama was smart to get them on board because even if he hadn’t they would still be rallying for change; Obama just helped them gain a stage that was beneficial to both parties.

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  18. Hunter F. (@kristintellsall)

    Couldn’t agree more. The best examples are the ones who have been through something involved. It brings an emotional response that a persuasive speach can’t. It is extremely important to have both sides see how something can affect someone instead of just saying things could happen. Francine Wheeler is an outsanding example of a woman who would stop at nothing to protect other kids from being killed by guns, so let her keep representing until she sees the changes she wants made.

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  19. caliannfornia

    I agree with this post. The right spokesperson should be someone who is passionate about a cause or extremely knowledgeable about it. The use of Sandy Hook parents is great PR because this is something they deeply care about and believe in. The amount of passion they use when speaking about gun control is enough to make even someone who is heartless tear up a little. They grab attention and willingly want to. They want this gun control issue fixed just as much as the organization does.

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  20. stevenpmorin

    I’m not sure if Ms. Wheeler was the best decision for the Obama team to make. Of course she is going to have a tear-jerking speech prepared and speak to the emotions of the audience. But that’s not where the argument lies. Both sides of the gun argument believe Sandy Hook was a tragedy and that killing people is bad. Making it seem otherwise trivializes the argument. Gun rights advocates are concerned with the government taking their rights. The Obama campaign needs to focus on portraying a message where the public can be safe and have their rights at the same time.

    I’m for stricter gun laws, but I don’t think my opponents are voting on the basis that murder sprees like the Sandy Hook massacre aren’t bad. At least I hope not.

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  21. Jenny Rowe

    I agree that this was a great choice of a spokesperson, but I know some of the parents of the Columbine High School tragedy have also been speaking about gun control for years and I can’t help but question if it will really make that much of a difference to NRA supporters. This was an excellent move made by Obama’s team, but I will have to see a difference made before I believe it worked.

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  22. Ian Poulos

    Using Francine Wheeler was certainly a good PR choice for the proponents of gun control. No one is closer to this debate than people like Ms. Wheeler, and this is an important quality for a spokesperson to have – that is, a familiarity with the cause. I think having the parents as representatives is going to be more effective than a hired spokesperson. If the debate was between spokesmen from opposite sides – the NRA and gun control lobby – I think success would hinge on who presents evidence and relates to the audience most effectively. However, using Ms. Wheeler and the other parents from Sandy Hook adds a dimension of sentimentality that the NRA will have difficulty competing with.

    In the end, both sides are lobbying to individuals for change. The persuasiveness of the presentation can make or break either of these campaigns. Both sides have facts and influential supporters. The facet added by the Sandy Hook parents may be the small push the gun control lobby needs to secure more restrictive laws.

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  23. gionnacerniglia

    Francine Wheeler was an excellent choice for a spokesperson. It is heart-breaking stories like this that can change people’s mind about gun control. It was a smart move for the Obama PR team to choose her.

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  24. ccorte6

    I think there is no better spokesperson than someone who can relate to the issue. In terms of keeping good PR, if the spokesperson has a connection to the topic at hand, it shows that they care and has a bigger affect on those who listen. Who better would know the tragedies that guns can bring than a mother or father who lost their child due to gun violence? Especially in lobbying, this puts into perspective the reasons WHY this is even an issue in the first place. I think this was a great move to get people to start taking gun control seriously.

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  25. Kneekiki

    This was definitely a smart move on behalf of Obamas PR team. This mother along with the other mothers whose children were victims of this tragic incident are not being used they are speaking on behalf of their loss. Any mother that has had something happened her children are going to take a stand no matter what. Of course this will not completely change the minds of people who already have their own beliefs on gun control but it is a start.

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  26. Amanda Daley

    In terms of PR, this was a smart move for the Obama campaign to push their agenda by using a representative that could evoke emotion in people. Sandy Hook is a tragedy that is still fresh in people’s minds, so bringing in a mother who is still in mourning is definitely going to hit home with people, especially with those who have young children themselves.
    However, some many find this choice biased, because guns are not always used for bad, they are often times used for good and for the protection of everyday people.

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  27. Sasha Mirpuri

    I agree that Wheeler was the right spokesperson in terms of this campaign. Obama’s PR team was on point with the decision, given that Wheeler wanted to speak. At first I was kind of skeptical but then I learned that she wanted to be heard– it’s the least she deserves. And, people are definitely more likely to be touched by a woman that has been tragically affected by an issue regarding gun control, as opposed to anyone else.

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  28. Diane R

    Francine Wheeler was a great choice as the spokesperson. Gun control is personal issue for her and she is able to speak passionately about the topic. People can relate to her view on gun control because she is the mother of a child who was a victim in the Sandy Hook tragedy. I feel like a big part of PR is connecting to an audience by things they can relate to and show emotion. Therefore, Obama allowing Francine to be the spokesperson is a good strategy for the campaign even thought she is not a PR expert.

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  29. nikkigyftopoulos

    An appropriate spokesperson is by far one of the most important aspects of running a public relations campaign. A spokesperson can either make or break an organization, as clearly seen by the BP disaster. I believe that Francine Wheeler was the perfect spokesperson for this occasion because her story is so personally related to the cause. This type of spokesperson evokes emotional responses from everyone, no matter what stance you may take on the issue. Francine Wheeler was not only speaking on behalf of Sandy Hook, but also on behalf of all the families affected by murders committed each year with the use of guns. Obama made a great move by using Wheeler as a spokesperson because if anyone spoke on the issue that was not directly affected by it, the speech would not have been as influential.

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  30. Claire T.

    Unfortunately, this issue is somewhat personal for me. One of my friends graduated from high school with Adam Lanza and I know several others who have friends/family who work and go to school at Sandy Hook.

    My issue is not with the chosen spokesperson, it’s with the way that they used her emotions with their own words. Obviously Francine consented to everything she was saying, but the entire thing was unbelievable from my point of view simply because I could tell she’d been given a piece of papers with words on it that weren’t her own. I’m sure one of the president’s speechwriters worked with personal details of Francine and her son Ben in order to come up with the perfect message.

    Perhaps I’m alone in feeling no connection whatsoever to a person who is reading someone else’s words when it’s such a personal subject. I think the anti-gun lobbyists have been granted the perfect opportunity to channel the Newtown residents’ grief into a cause for justice, but I wish there was a more authentic way to do so.

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  31. Marissa Dombkowski

    I absolutely agree that Francine Wheeler was the right representative. It is easy to get caught up in the politics of it all, but anyone who watched and listened to Francine heard her heart wrenching story as she brought her tragic experience to life. I think this was very smart on Obama’s part. No one could have expressed the pain and heartache more than that of a parent who just lost a child.

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  32. Amanda Torres

    I think Francine Wheeler was the right representative. I think it was also smart, caring and thoughtful of Obama to turn over his weekly address to her. Living testimonies are always going to hit home to people a lot stronger than someone, who wasn’t directly affected by the event, speaking on behalf of it.

    The whole idea was to show the people that innocent children were killed and parents are mourning. She was (like you said) the right person for the cause. Parents that were affected (or any parents who have lost a child) can relate to her and understand her pain.

    I think this was a good thing for both her and other grieving parents. She does not have to be a PR expert to touch someone or send a message.

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  33. bluelenex

    I think it was a good move to bring in the mother because she can bring things out of context and get people thinking about the human beings instead of the politics. I feel that too often both parties use tragedies like Sandy Hook to manipulate their arguments to their favor. I’m not sure if it’ll change gun laws, especially if people are now starting to focus on mental illness awareness instead of the guns themselves. People are realizing that there are other ways to prevent these tragedies, and it definitely helps to have victims speak because they help remind people of all of the pain and anguish that happens as a result.

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  34. Christina Deecken

    Francine Wheeler was willing to speak on behalf of gun control, something she is especially passionate about after experiencing a tragedy caused by guns first-hand. Therefore, I believe that she is a fitting spokesperson for this cause. The subject itself can definitely be viewed as controversial, but I personally don’t view this move as exploitive. Her words have the potential to make a profound impact on the public, due to her unique position on the matter.

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  35. gmcillo

    Although I think it was a good PR move for Obama’s campaign I can see how his strategy was controversial. Having someone speak about a personal issue is always more moving and effective then having someone just talk from a ‘textbook’. In this case of the Sandy Hook victims, it allows the parents to speak out and captivate an audience who are more likely to be parents as well. I see how the topics maybe exploiting but if the parents are willing to speak, than do we really have a controversy?

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  36. Shurida Lundi

    If the parent of the victims of the Sandy Hook incident want to speak out then let them. This could all be part of a healing process for them. They weren’t forced to speak, it was their choice. Emotional appeal is a big part of PR because when you can connect to an audience you automatically catch their attention and you increase their chances of going out and doing something. I rather listen to a mother’s opinion who has been affected by guns then just a politician trying to make a decision.

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  37. AndreaRebello

    I understand how this topic could be controversial. The usage of a parent as a spokesperson is a good strategy specifically for this type of campaign. However, I also see the other side to this controversy because of how personally this woman was affected by the issue. But then again… she wasn’t forced to speak, making it difficult to take a side.

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  38. ejm1059

    A very good PR move from the Obama camp. We hear so many different information from the NRA, Republican, Democrats, etc. that it’s hard to form a real opinion on the matter. Words from a grieving mother is way more effective than anything a politician could say. And like you said, these parents are doing this willingly. Nobody is forcing them. This is a definite win for the Obama camp. Wheeler’s speech broke me heart and moved me so much.

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  39. Lauren Ciuzio

    I also agree that this was a great choice for a spokesperson. She really hit home and was an excellent representation of the emotion behind this cause. Sure, it kind of is exploitation in a way, but these people are not being forced to speak about their cause, they are willing. I think the parents of the Sandy Hook victim should have a huge say in all of this, and should use their unfortunate circumstance to inspire others to take further precautions. This is similar to the parents who have a PSA running right now for their daughter who was beheaded in a limo accident a few years back due to a drunk driver. Hearing personal stories really make such an impact, and I think it is a great PR move to do so.

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  40. Sarah Caruso

    Whether or not a person is willing to speak on behalf of an issue, it is still exploitation. You’re using our emotions against us in order to satisfy your own agenda. Are people really going to say no to a crying mother who’s son was tragically murdered? Of course not. Tapping in to our most basic human emotions is a good PR strategy, but it is still exploitation.

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    1. jmorosoff

      Don’t all lawmakers/opinion leaders/advertisers and others use our emotions to satisfy a particular agenda? I disagree that this is exploitation (a truly negative term). But to answer your question, yes, in this case there are millions of people saying “no” to a crying mother whose son was murdered, and there will be a couple of hundred lawmakers who will soon say “no” with their votes!

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  41. aspenc6

    I agree that this was a good choice for a spokesperson. Some may say that using these parents is Obama’s way of exploiting them, but as you mentioned, they are willing to speak on behalf of the issue. An important aspect of an effective spokesperson is someone who can evoke an emotion and make people believe and listen to what they have to say. The parents of the victims of Sandy Hook can do just that.

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  42. EMC

    I agree on this one. When someone represents the reason for the lobbying efforts and their potential effects, they can be a very accurate choice for a PR rep. That being said, there could be grey area (playing devil’s advocate) that it represents a biast viewpoint that exemplifies the most extreme results of gun use.
    Yes, I think that mothers of Sandy Hook are a good choice though, because they speak for everyday citizens and are volunteering to be in the position.

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  43. janabanana12

    I agree. Just because someone doesn’t have the title of a PR expert, doesn’t mean they can’t make a difference. In order to make drastic changes in today’s society, sometimes emotion is more important (and influential) than politics or economics. We change laws or the way things are being handled, because of what goes on. Experience is what shifts society, and experiencing a dead child is more than enough to make a difference.

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