This post is entirely off topic; however, I have been watching this public relations SNAFU unfold around me. What follows is a cross between a case study and a cautionary tale.
The volunteer president of an animal welfare group was pissed because a severely abused puppy had to be euthanized. Perfectly understandable. I would be too.
Next to a picture of that puppy on the organization’s facebook page, this is what she posted: “As far as I’m concerned, if a bomb went off and wiped this community off the face of the earth . . . there would not be too many tears shed. There … I have said what everyone is thinking! How many animals have to needlessly die at the hands of those assholes!” That was May 18.
Then in a post to the thread, the volunteer director of public relations for the animal welfare group identified where the puppy had been taken—a neighbouring native community.
No question, at that moment the president of the animal welfare group truly hated that community.
And it took off from there.
A subsequent post by another member of the facebook group read “Is (name of community) a alcohol free reserve?? or are they just plain savages walking around in a human like form.” In all, over 100 posts. I did not read them; but according to a caller to a news outlet’s feedback line, they went so far as to suggest mandatory sterilization of the native group. The same caller said 81 posts were made, including numerous comments from the president, before she made a post to the effect that her comments were aimed at the perpetrators of the abuse, not the entire native community.
Perhaps she would have hated the people of that community regardless of their race—only she knows for sure. I am reasonably sure she would have felt the same way about any community where she found numerous incidents of animal neglect and abuse. Regardless, her hatred was ugly, something better kept to herself. She, however, chose to make it public.
Understandable at some level perhaps, but the wrong thing to do from her organization’s perspective.
Some of the group’s other posters, however, were unabashedly racist. Not at all understandable. Also the wrong thing from the organization’s perspective.
How did the animal welfare group react as an organization? Initially, it deleted the thread and tightened up its monitoring of what was said on the page.
But by May 22 a facebook group called “Shame on (Name of Animal Welfare Group) Negative Comments on (Name of Native Group)” had more than 550 members.
On May 23 the animal welfare group suspended all activity on the facebook page in question. Still, their director of public relations publicly maintained their president had the full support of the board.
Meanwhile, the chief of the native community called for the president to issue a formal apology. She has since written him apologizing for her comment about wanting to “blow them all away,” saying that she didn’t mean to disrespect the community itself. But clearly, that is what she did. Not all residents of that native community abuse or neglect animals, yet she talked about wiping out the entire community. She liberally tarred them all with the same brush.
The animal welfare group has received threatening calls and e-mails. A single female employee was confronted by two truckloads of people, purportedly from the native community, hurling obscenities.
Media coverage has fanned the flames. Animal welfare people have been called racists. Native people have been called animal abusers (and worse).
I know the animal welfare group in question does a lot of good work. I can appreciate that animal rescue work is brutal and unrelenting and frustrating. The volunteers who do this hard work with the support of one paid staff don’t deserve to have their efforts tarnished.
So from a public relations perspective, the real question here is how this could have been prevented. And how can the animal welfare group ensure nothing like this ever happens again.
Where to from Here?
Develop a social media policy. If an organization uses social media, it needs a social media policy. At the very least, the policy should set out
- who can speak on behalf of the organization
- what can and can’t they say (libel, hate, threats, bias are all on the no-fly list)
- who preapproves comments made on behalf of the organization
Someone could have, should have prevented the group’s president from posting in anger. Someone can, and must, ensure nothing like it happens again.
Appoint a moderator or moderators for the group’s media accounts. If an organization deals with highly emotional issues, comments on its social media accounts need to be moderated. I understand posts about lost and found animals and requests for emergency assistance are time sensitive. That is why this organization needs a moderator or moderators, so there’s no huge delay in making those posts. But no post or comment—whether from an internal or external source—should go up before it has been vetted and approved.
Can the Existing Wounds be Healed?
The animal rescue group has taken a black eye. The people of the native group, and other members of their race, are hurt.
The director of public relations would have served the organization better had she said that while the board of directors understood the president’s anger, her comments were wrong, and hateful; and the organization was truly sorry. Instead, she allowed her comments to be coloured by a sense of righteous indignation.
But the bulk of the responsibility rests with the president. It was her initial comments on facebook that fanned the flames, and her failure to intervene earlier in the thread that resulted in the fire storm.
The president needs to make a sincere, very public apology. No back peddling. No trying to explain things away. Not trying to mitigate what she said. Just: “What I said was wrong. It was wrong to threaten the community in that way. I’m sorry that my comments instigated a lot of hateful comments about the residents of that community and aboriginal people in general. And I’m sorry I didn’t step in earlier to stop it. I was upset about what had happened to the puppy, but that doesn’t excuse my behaviour.” Full stop.
She started it. She has to end it.
Things won’t be perfect, but they’ll be better.