Three key communications steps can help any organization’s PR team deal with a crisis. The British Columbia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (BC SPCA) response to the brutal killing of 100 sled dogs in Canada shows the importance of being 1) timely, 2) transparent, and 3) thoughtful.
Dog lovers across the world were infuriated by the recent news that 100 sled dogs were brutally slaughtered in Canada last spring. Search for “sled dogs” on the Vancouver Sun’s site, and you’ll find dozens of articles related to the incident. In many, BC SPCA representatives have had to explain why they couldn’t have saved the animals.
This situation is tragic for the dogs killed and unfortunate for the man who apparently tried to help the dogs before killing them (he’s now dealing with severe post-traumatic stress disorder). It has also turned into a massive public-relations concern for the BC SPCA - one that could have led to a debacle, but may result in a surge of donations and support. What can we learn from their public response?
In emotionally charged situations, an organization’s public response needs to be:
Respond to a crisis as quickly as possible. This will help you ‘own’ the message and improve the odds that the story will come out in your favor, rather than require you to play constant defense if someone else breaks the story in a way that casts blame on your organization.
The BC SPCA’s news page about the killings acknowledges that they first heard about the killings on January 28, 2011. The Vancouver Sun first reported on the story on the 31st. A day or two gives an organization plenty of time recognize the potential weight of a possible story and formulate a response, or, better yet, to push the story before someone else does.
Judging by the SPCA’s early responses (see below), the organization was unprepared for the public backlash caused by the story, which spread around the world rapidly and, deservedly so or not, required the organization to defend itself. And with the power of social media stronger than ever, a prompt, appropriate public response is key.
State the facts as you know them. Acknowledge the gravity of the situation - in this case, the sad, horrifying deaths of social animals who were killed senselessly in front of each other.
And be honest: don’t try to hide anything your organization is or isn’t doing, did or didn’t know. Anything you hide will be uncovered at some point by someone. As difficult as the truth may be, the BC SPCA has been honest in acknowledging that the dogs would’ve likely been euthanized had the organization taken them in.
Show respect to everyone involved, and empathize with those affected. Don’t cast blame, and take ownership of blame thrown your way.
Most of all, choose your words carefully. From a Feb. 2 article in the Vancouver Sun:
BC SPCA head of animal cruelty Marcie Moriarty said the SPCA would have acted had it known the dogs were going to be slaughtered.
The admission that the organization didn’t know about the coming slaughter is good. But she goes on to place blame, something that typically doesn’t help to improve public perception:
But she added it’s not the SPCA’s responsibility “to take on their issues … to suddenly make a phone call and say, ‘I have 100 dogs that need placing;’ that’s not an answer to their business operation’s issues,” said Moriarty.
“If we had any indication they would have been executed we absolutely would have done something.” But she added it’s likely they would have still been euthanized.
“What people have to realize because of the way they’re raised they’re not highly adoptable animals. Maybe a few could have been adopted but these dogs are on tethers 90 per cent of their lives. Is it fair [Outdoor Adventures] profits — get thousands of dollars from tourists and not have a retirement plan? Is it fair they would dump them on the SPCA and then we’d have the pain of that euthanization?”
The tone of what someone says can be just as or more important than the actual words uttered, and even if the intent of the representative’s response was to clearly state the facts, the above comes off as decidedly defensive.
Words themselves matter, too. Phrases such as “What people have to realize…” make the audience feel as if they’re being talked down to. And questions of fairness (“Is it fair [Outdoor Adventures] profits — get thousands of dollars from tourists and not have a retirement plan? Is it fair they would dump them on the SPCA and then we’d have the pain of that euthanization?”) do nothing to promote your cause if your organization has been forced into a defensive position.
If you aren’t sure that an employee related to a crisis is the right person to speak to the media, be sure that someone skilled in communication and media relations is your organization’s point person: it’s easy for the media to take things out of context.
- When preparing a response to a crisis or public outcry, play devil’s advocate to help you anticipate tough questions. In this case, the BC SPCA could anticipate questions like, “If Michael Vick’s dogs could be rescued and rehabilitated, why did the BC SPCA so quickly dismiss the sled dogs?” The answer, likely, is lack of resources. Repeating this point in every communication with the media could help drive it home.
- Have a key spokesperson (ideally the leader of the organization), along with a public-relations specialist, prepared for any media inquiries. Saying “no comment” is the worst possible response to a reporter’s question; if you haven’t had time to prepare, ask the reporter what they’d like to know and tell them you’ll find out. Then actually find out and reply promptly.
This is by no means a comprehensive list: Training on how to properly communicate with the media is essential, and things such as talking points and honest internal communication within an organization are important, too.
For more about the Whistler sled-dog incident from an American perspective, check out the KC Dog Blog. For information on tethered dogs in Indianapolis, including city ordinances and how to help chained dogs, check out FIDO.
(And full disclosure: I own two Husky mixes, so this story is close to my heart.)