It takes place in Asia, but an animal activist group’s latest initiative reveals the truth about why attacks on producers never seem to end — and why they never will.
In the world of public relations, there are two primary imperatives: Douse the occasional brushfire — or god forbid, a full-on forest fire — and create a bright, shiny aura around the client — the group, the company or the personality who’s paying the bills.
Firefighting, or crisis management, as the industry prefers to call it, is often tough sledding, but the playbook really hasn’t changed much over the years.
Step one is to “get ahead of the crisis” by anticipating where events are going, by being proactive and by moving quickly to step two: Take responsibility for the problem — at least, pretend to take the blame, but be sure to phrase it carefully to avoid legal liability.
Step three, which hopefully can be delayed until the “fire” is little more than smoldering embers, is to announce bold, positive changes that ideally were already in place, they’re just going to be ramped up even more so than they were previously.
When corporations or politicians fail to follow that playbook, they get roasted by the media, scorned by the public and often fined heavily by the courts. Exhibit A in that regard is BP and the Deepwater Horizon disaster that occurred exactly five years ago. If you remember, an explosion on a drilling rig killed 11 workers, and the broken oil well on the sea floor spilled hundreds of millions of gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico for months on end before it was finally capped.
But BP at first tried to blame the contractors that built and operated the rig, then they downplayed the extent of the disaster, then they stonewalled investigators who were trying to determine the impact of chemical dispersants being dropped from planes to break up the massive oil slick TV news cameras were broadcasting on a continuous loop.
Subsequent investigations eventually pinned the blame on BP’s cost-cutting measures, an organization-wide indifference to investing in safety-related technologies, and after the company pleaded guilty to a slew of felonies — including manslaughter and perjury — the firm was hit with billions in fines and reparations. It is still trying to rebuild its reputation with self-serving ads touting the pristine beauty of the communities along the Gulf that were hardest hit by the massive oil slicks that fouled beaches and ruined fisheries.
Big picture themes
As for the second PR initiative, creating positive press, the preferred game plan doesn’t exist. There are various ways to create positive imagery, one of the most popular being building an affiliation with broad “themes” demonstrating significant public support on opinion polling, but it’s neither easy nor straightforward.
Some examples of themes that the companies and media consultants in the industry have used (with varying degrees of effectiveness) would include “food security,” “family farming” and “resource stewardship.”
Among animal activists, parallel themes would include “environmental protection,” “animal welfare” and such attributes as “natural,” “local,” and “sustainable.”
A good example of how the thematic approach to positive PR functions on the ground is an initiative launched by an Asian activist group called ACRES (Animal Concerns Research & Education Society). Based in Singapore, the animal welfare non-profit is shopping for an ad agency to “gear up for a roadshow to raise public understanding and respect for animals,” according to a report from mUmBRELLA, a website that tracks Asian media.
The purpose of the project is “to show that animals feel and communicate in ways similar to people and are not just objects for humans to use,” according to the story, and “engage and inform Gen Y, gain supporters and recruit volunteers” (with a twist: ACRES is “seeking pro bono help” from some well-wishing agency. Good luck with that).
“Most animal welfare groups run specific cause-related campaigns — for example: end animal testing, go vegetarian, end animal shows — but there is a general lack of awareness of animals in the first place,” ACRES officials said in a news release. “There is a need to lay the foundation for these campaigns.”
The goal is raising consciousness, real big-picture stuff, right?
But the proof of how difficult that is, how uncertain the pathway is to “engaging and informing,” appears in the very next paragraph of the release: ACRES is “looking for designers to work on a new idea to pressure casino and entertainment giant Resorts World Sentosa into freeing the dolphins on display in its aquarium.”
Wait a second. Isn’t that a specific, cause-related campaign?
Why, yes it is, and the reason that ACRES moved quickly off its raise awareness concept to oppose a designated bad guy is because it’s slow, often unrewarding work to truly impact public opinion. It’s way easier, both in terms of tactics and fund-raising, to reach out to constituencies that are already aligned and tee up a fire-breathing campaign that energizes your supporters.
Which explains why activists roll out one attack after another on producers, packers, marketers and scientists engaged in activities they don’t like.
What ACRES said it intends to do about awareness and engagement is truly daunting.
What it’s falling back on fits like an old shoe: Comfortable and easy to slip into, if a bit smelly.
Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator