CEO Takes Us Behind the Scenes of Gun-Sale Crisis

Thom Weidlich 10.17.19


Ed Stack, the CEO of Dick’s Sporting Goods, has a book out in which he brings us inside the company’s decision to severely restrict gun sales — a move that brought upon it, and Stack, a major backlash. He presents useful insight into how a company deals with a crisis.

In It’s How We Play the Game and a fascinating interview with the Harvard Business Review, Stack lays out how Dick’s Sporting Goods addressed the communications issues.

The catalysts were the mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, on Dec. 14, 2012, and at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14, 2018.

After Sandy Hook the retailer pulled assault-style weapons from its shelves without much fanfare; it addressed the issue only when it got flak from gun enthusiasts. It continued to sell assault-style weapons in its Field & Stream stores.

I felt that we needed to stand up and say something.

Ed Stack, CEO of Dick’s Sporting Goods

The big change came after the Parkland shooting. The company decided to no longer sell assault-style weapons or high capacity magazines or to anyone under 21 years old, including at Field & Stream. “I felt that we needed to stand up and say something,” Stack told HBR.

More recently, it’s gone further, removing guns altogether from first 10 stores and then 125 (Dick’s Sporting Goods has more than 700 locations plus its Gulf & Stream and Golf Galaxy brands). It sold eight Field & Stream stores, which are hunting focused. “We continue to have the whole hunt business under strategic review,” Stack told HBR.

Lesson Learned

Stack said his initial preference was to simply release a statement about what Dick’s Sporting Goods planned to do after Parkland. His advisors convinced him the issue was bigger than that. One reason he agreed was a lesson he learned from the company’s quiet approach after Sandy Hook.

By not speaking out, he writes, “We opened the door to others with their own agendas to interpret our actions to the public. We lost control of our own narrative.”

That’s  a pretty good lesson in crisis communications. So the company came up with a communications plan. On Feb. 28, two weeks after the Parkland shooting, it issued a press release and sent emails to employees, customers, and vendors. Stack also did two TV interviews, with George Stephanopoulos on Good Morning America and Chris Cuomo on CNN. Afterward, he got more than 400 interview requests, he writes; he declined all except NBC.

The backlash came soon enough from customers, vendors, and employees (about 65 quit). “We had a number of people who were really upset, who sent emails and letters and phone calls,” Stack told HBR. “They were pretty descriptive on how they thought about us and about me in particular. What we were surprised about is the outpouring of support that we received from the public about our decision.”

Stack is open about the difficulties with vendors. “Our suppliers were not happy with us,” he said. “We had a number of pretty spirited conversations with them, and a number of them decided not to do business with us anymore.” But the company never caved in to them.

The important point for crisis communicators is that Dick’s Sporting Goods prepared for the backlash. It also prepared for the financial hit (and lowered its guidance), which was massive. The damage was pretty close to expectations, according to Stack: at least $250 million. (It cut costs and emphasized areas it had neglected, such as student sports, and was able to then raise its guidance.)

As part of its losses, Dick’s Sporting Goods destroyed $5 million worth of rifles.

Photo Credit: Jonathan Weiss/Shutterstock

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