PHILADELPHIA — Last week, a local Indiana chapter of Moms for Liberty attracted attention for quoting Adolf Hitler in its newsletter. After the local paper reported the story, the group added additional “context” but kept the quote. Eventually, after it faced even more 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 at the Moms for Liberty national conference’s media training session Friday.
“Never apologize. Ever,” said Christian Ziegler, the chairman of the Florida Republican Party. “This is my view. Other people have different views on this. I think apologizing makes you weak.”
He advised the attendees to instead make it clear that the Hitler comment was “vile” but to immediately pivot to make the point that Hitler indoctrinated children in schools and that that’s what Moms for Liberty was fighting against. Ziegler warned that any apology would become the headline, so that should be avoided.
Moms for Liberty, which says it is nonpartisan, has grown into a conservative powerhouse, boasting 120,000 members in 285 chapters across 44 states. The group started in Brevard County, Florida, in 2021, initially to fight Covid restrictions and mask mandates.
It has morphed into a sprawling organization that aims to fight for what it sees as parental rights but that critics, including the left-leaning Southern Poverty Law Center, label 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 such topics as race, gender and sexuality.
The group is holding its second annual national conference here this week, drawing the five GOP presidential candidates, including former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Ziegler conducted his training during a breakout session, giving more than 100 attendees a lesson in how to deal with the media as the activists attract more attention and scrutiny.
He is the husband of Bridget Ziegler, one of the co-founders of Moms for Liberty, who later left the organization in an official capacity and was appointed by DeSantis to his Disney oversight board this spring. She introduced her husband at the session.
In a follow-up conversation Saturday, Ziegler called it a “very 101 presentation” in which he was just “giving some ideas.”
The sessions are normally closed to the media, but Moms for Liberty co-founder Tiffany Justice invited NBC News to attend. A spokesperson for the organization later disputed the invitation, and Ziegler said he believed the session was closed to the media. An NBC News reporter offered proper identification to two staff members working the session and presented media credentials at the door.
In a written statement, co-founders Justice and Tina Descovich said: “We hosted more than 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 gave a glimpse into how these parents — many of them newly engaged activists — are trying to shape the media narrative as they become more powerful within the Republican Party and the candidates court their favor ahead of the 2024 elections.
Ziegler’s main message was clear: “The media is not your friend.”
“If you give [the media] the least amount possible, you’re fully controlling 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 how to persuade reporters to go to their events and how to get “positive” messages out. Ziegler’s presentation emphasized the importance of being on the offensive and not letting your guard down.
“They’re lazy,” Ziegler said of reporters. “They have no idea what’s going on at school board meetings. Oftentimes they don’t even know how local government works.”
He also told attendees to give priority to local news interviews instead of going to national media.
“That’s where you reach the undecideds,” he said, adding that people who watch Fox News or MSNBC probably know how they’re going to vote but that consumers of local news may not.
Ziegler told attendees to look for opportunities to rattle their opponents, and he shared as an example a tactic to mess with a political opponent’s head. It involved printing out a direct mail piece that goes to 50 of the opponent’s friends and neighbors — but that the person will believe went to the whole town.
“They’re totally paranoid,” Ziegler said. “And they’ve burned three days of productivity” because they’re spending time worrying about a mailer that went out to only a few dozen people.
In an interview later, Ziegler described the mailer discussion as “an off-the-cuff example for campaigns that has nothing to do with the media training.”
Attendees took notes and several photos of the accompanying PowerPoint presentation, titled “(wo)manhandling the media.” Other breakout sessions included presentations titled “Comprehensive Sex Education: Sex Ed or Sexualization” and “Dream Team: Winning Campaigns Have Winning Teams — What’s Your 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 she believes it’s the organization’s role to “help [moms] to learn and grow and to be effective advocates” as Moms for Liberty continues to grow.
“They haven’t had media training,” Descovich said. “The pressure they’re under just stepping up to speak for their kids is a mess.”