PHILADELPHIA — Last week, a local chapter of Moms for Liberty in Indiana drew attention for quoting Adolf Hitler in its newsletter. After the local newspaper reported the story, the group added additional «context» but kept the quote. Ultimately, after facing even greater scrutiny, the organization removed the quote and apologized in a statement posted to its Facebook group.
That, however, was a big mistake, according to advice from the national Moms for Liberty conference on Friday.
“Never apologize. Never,» said Christian Ziegler, chairman of the Florida Republican Party. «This is my opinion. Other people have different views on this. I think apologizing makes you weak.»
He advised attendees to instead make it clear that Hitler’s comment was «vile» but immediately move on to pointing out that the Nazi leader indoctrinated children in schools, and that is what Moms for Liberty. Ziegler warned that any apology would become the headline, so it should be avoided.
Moms for Liberty says it’s nonpartisan, but it has become a conservative powerhouse, with some 120,000 members in 285 chapters in 44 states. The group started in Brevard County, Florida in 2021, initially as a way to fight Covid restrictions and mask mandates.
It has since morphed into a sprawling organization that aims to fight for what it sees as parental rights, but which critics, including the left-leaning Southern Poverty Law Center, tag anti-government extremism. Its members have removed books they deem inappropriate from public school libraries and have pushed to end what they see as the «indoctrination» of children on issues such as race, gender and sexuality.
The group is holding its second annual national conference here this week, drawing all five Republican presidential candidates, including former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Ziegler conducted her training during a breakout session, giving more than 100 attendees a lesson on dealing with the media as activists draw more attention and scrutiny.
In a follow-up conversation with NBC News Saturday, Ziegler called it a «very 101 presentation» in which he was just «shaking some ideas.»
These sessions are normally closed to the press, but Moms for Liberty co-founder Tiffany Justice invited NBC News to attend. A spokesperson for the organization later disputed that invitation, and Ziegler said she believed the session was closed to the press. An NBC News reporter identified himself to two staff members working the session and presented his press credentials at the door.
In a written statement, co-founders Justice and Tina Descovich said: “We hosted over 100 members of the media at our national summit in Philadelphia, including NBC. The brokenness of our K-12 public education system in America cannot be hidden, and that is why we are proud that so many of our members are brave enough to do interviews with reporters, even when they are not fair or kind. ”.
The session provided a glimpse of how these parents, many of them newly committed activists, are trying to shape the media narrative as they grow more powerful within the Republican Party ahead of the 2024 election and candidates court their favor.
Ziegler’s main message was clear: «The media is not your friend.»
«if you give [the media] as few as possible, you are completely in control of the message,” he said. “The more you give them, the less you control. The less you give them, the more you control.»
Attendees asked Ziegler questions about how to convince reporters to come to his events and how to convey a «positive» message. Ziegler’s presentation emphasized the importance of being on offense and not letting your guard down.
“They are lazy,” Ziegler said of the reporters. “They have no idea what is going on at school board meetings. Often they don’t even know how local government works.»
He also told attendees to prioritize local news interviews instead of going to the national media.
“That’s where you get to the undecided,” he said, adding that people who watch Fox News or MSNBC probably know how they’re going to vote, but local news consumers may not.
Ziegler told attendees to look for opportunities to scare their opponents, sharing a tactic for messing with a political opponent’s head as an example. He involved printing out a direct mail piece that goes to 50 of his opponent’s friends and neighbors, but that person will believe he went all over town.
“They are totally paranoid,” Ziegler predicted. “And they’ve burned three days of productivity” because they spend time worrying about an email that’s been sent to just a few dozen people.
In an interview, Ziegler later described the email discussion as «a makeshift example for campaigns that has nothing to do with media training.»
Attendees took notes and took several photos of the accompanying PowerPoint presentation titled «(wo)manhandling the media.» Other breakout sessions included presentations titled «Comprehensive Sex Education: Sex Education or Sexualization» and «Dream Team: Winning Campaigns Have Winning Teams: What Is Their Role?»
Co-founders Justice and Descovich expressed sympathy for members of some of their chapters who have had unflattering media coverage and been accused of harassing teachers or school board members.
In an interview, Descovich said he believes the organization’s role is «to help [moms] to learn and grow and be effective advocates” as Moms for Liberty continues to grow.
“They have not received media training,” Descovich said. “The pressure they are under to just step up to speak up for their children is a disaster.”