Editorial: Media relations & the Bangalore dog crisis

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 2007:

The Bangalore dog crisis, extensively covered in both this
and the previous edition of ANIMAL PEOPLE, has underlying meaning
for almost every reader.
Heavily publicized dog attacks, in Bangalore and elsewhere,
may cause India to rescind or weaken the decade-old policy mandating
civic participation in the national Animal Birth Control program,
and forbidding indiscriminate massacres of street dogs.
This would be a reversal of momentum toward achieving no-kill
animal control of global influence–and would come even though ABC
has cut the street dog population of India by as much as 75% in 10
years, according to the most recent World Health Organization
estimate. Dog attacks are down proportionately, including in
Bangalore, which has 74% fewer dog attacks per 1,000 citizens than
the national average.

Yet because dog attacks are fewer, those that occur are
getting more attention. Because the Bangalore and Indian national
news media were inadequately informed about ABC successes, and were
insufficiently enlisted in educating the public, much of India now
wrongly believes that dog attacks are more frequent and more vicious
than when ABC started.
Journalists have been easily manipulated by political opportunists
who saw in two recent fatal dog attacks–one of them beyond the areas
served by ABC–a chance to restore to the public payroll their goonda
bagmen and enforcers. Traditionally such thugs were hired as
dogcatchers, supplementing their salaries by selling dog meat, fur,
and leather.
The most outspoken opponents of ABC, in Bangalore and
throughout India, include politicians whose careers are founded on
manipulating the votes of illiterates, and operators of unlicensed,
uninspected, unsafe, unsanitary, and thoroughly inhumane shanty
butcher shops, whose carelessly discarded offal attracts street dogs
who form warring packs. Such packs were responsible for both recent
Illiterates vote in India–but they do not buy newspapers.
The illegal meat shops pay bribes to avoid law enforcement, but they
do not buy mass media advertising. There was no inherent reason why
ABC opponents gained the immediate amplification and leverage they
did, except that supporters of ABC had insufficiently introduced
themselves in newsrooms.
Ethnic and class issues were immediately exploited by the
foes of ABC. Butchering, for example, is chiefly done by members
of the Muslim minority, officialy 12% of the Indian population.
About two-thirds of Indians eat meat, including most of the poorest.
ABC programs are by contrast mostly headed by educated and relatively
affluent vegetarians, who tend to be acutely aware of their
vulnerability to mob violence, as well as of the vulnerability of
the dogs they try to help. Often ABC program heads and spokespersons
are too discreet to point out to illiterates at volatile public
meetings that many of their blustering leaders are the very people
whose exploitive habits are most responsible for their misery.
For example, instead of funding the eradication of rabies
through immunizing dogs, at a fraction of the cost of killing them,
politicians relying on illiterate support make a show of “putting
poor people ahead of dogs,” by funding only post-exposure
vaccination for dog bite victims. This brings kickbacks from local
vaccine makers and distributors, as has occasionally been exposed,
and earns the gratitude of the victims and their families, but does
nothing to make communities safer because it fails to attack rabies
at the source. It does, however, perpetuate fear of rabies as a
device that can be used to rally voters.
Anti-ABC politicians are pushing a policy which will
inevitably result in poor children continuing to be exposed to
maulings and rabies.
The reasons for this should have been firmly and forthrightly
established in media awareness and public opinion before the recent
fatal attacks ever occurred–and through broadcast as well as print
media, to reach the illiterate poor.
Because these points were not adequately made, ABC opponents
were taken seriously when they alleged that ABC is responsible for
the very problems it is rapidly reducing.

Do not wait for media to call

In sum, the Bangalore crisis is an ongoing illustration of
the most important points made by the ANIMAL PEOPLE tip sheet Media
Relations for Animal Shelters.
Thousands of copies have been distributed since 1993 as
conference handouts, both on paper and in CD format. More have been
downloaded from the ANIMAL PEOPLE and Best Friends Animal Society web
sites. People for Animals founder Maneka Gandhi incorporated much of
Media Relations for Animal Shelters into the PfA handbook on media
relations, expressly for use in India. Key tips are closely
paraphrased in the World Society for the Protection of Animals
membership handbook. Media communications presenter Lynn D’Souza
kept the Best Friends edition on an overhead projector screen
throughout most of her talk at the January 2007 Asia for Animals
conference in Chennai.
Yet in Bangalore the very first sentence was neglected, for
whatever reason:
Do not wait for the media to come to you. If you do, they
usually will not come until someone has complained about a problem,
which puts you on the defensive.
The remedy, anywhere and everywhere, is to get to know your
local media.
Find out who edits each of the newspapers and broadcast news
programs serving your area. Find out who covers lifestyles,
children’s issues, municipal affairs, crime, and wildlife.
Introduce yourself to all of these people.
Send personal letters of introduction, explaining what your
organization does that involves each reporter’s beat. Then call.
Make yourself immediately and easily accessible as a reliable source
of information and perspective, who can be reached on deadline, can
be quoted on the record, and will not retreat from controversy.
Be aware that journalists often have short tenures. Read
newspapers, and listen to the broadcast news. If someone new
addresses a topic that might overlap animal work, make immediate
contact. If reporters disappear, find out where they went and
maintain acquaintance. Many will have moved up to editing, or to
media reaching more people. Those who have changed cities might
become valuable contacts on regional or national issues. Those who
have retired might volunteer to help amplify your media outreach.
Always have background material ready to e-mail, fax, or
deliver in person to anyone who needs it, and have the information
posted at your web site.
Include, in this order:
* Contact information–and don’t forget to offer a number
for 24-hour-a-day crisis response. Being able to reach you in the
morning doesn’t help when the morning edition describing last night’s
incident goes to press at three a.m.
* Vital statistics on your work, together with the national
norms on important subjects. For example, none of the Bangalore
news media knew, until informed by ANIMAL PEOPLE, that Bangalore
has 75,000 fewer dog bites per year than could be expected, based on
Indian norms, and no rabies within city limits in three years.
* Succinct explanations of variance from the norms. The
Bangalore ABC programs are demonstrably preventing at least 75,000
dog bites and hundreds of human rabies cases each and every year.
* Succinct statements of realistic short-term and long-term
objectives. The goal of ABC is often misrepresented by opponents as
trying to perpetuate street dog populations. They get away with it
because ABC proponents inadequately explain the ecological principles
behind the ABC approach.
The longterm goal of ABC is to eliminate street dogs by preventing
them from breeding up to the carrying capacity of the habitat. The
short-term goals include reducing the carrying capacity of the
habitat, by allowing dogs who cannot reproduce to continue to
consume the food, which would otherwise encourage the fecundity and
nursing success of breeding bitches. (An important unofficial goal
of ABC, which also must be amplified, is encouraging communities to
improve their sanitation, before each dog’s place is taken by two
monkeys, three cats, 100 rats, or a pig, all of whom will be much
more problematic.)
* Succinct statements of needs in order to achieve
objectives. As Animal Rights Fund volunteer Poornima Harish
explained in the March 2007 edition of ANIMAL PEOPLE, the
hue-and-cry over the dog attacks gave the Bangalore ABC programs an
excellent chance to seek further funding and community support.
Unfortunately, much of the momentum of the moment was lost because
the programs’ unmet needs were not already prominently on the public
agenda. If the ABC program leaders had been vociferously on record,
demanding the wherewithal necessary to extend their efforts to the
unincorporated area where the second fatality occurred, they could
not have been accused of not “doing the needful.”
* Your most recent financial summary, including any
compensation paid to top personnel. The Bangalore ABC programs were
wrongly accused in print of self-aggrandizement. All of them are led
entirely by volunteers, and ANIMAL PEOPLE has often cited one of
them, Compassion Unlimited Plus Action, as a model of
accountability. Had the financial facts already been shared with
local news media, the people making the allegations–including some
reporters and columnists–might have been asked by their editors to
document their claims, instead of those claims going to press.

Recovering from disaster

The Bangalore ABC programs were victimized by much sloppy and
sensational reporting, mostly by people who were shielded by the
common Indian practice of identifying newspaper article authors only
as “Our Correspondent,” or “Our Staff Reporter.”
One article quoted a nameless veterinarian who asserted that
no vet can do more than seven or eight sterilization surgeries per
day, even if supported by veterinary technicians. Therefore the
Bangalore ABC spokespersons were said to be lying when they claimed
to sterilize 40 dogs per day. That the quoted vet was incompetent,
by global surgical standards, might have been recognized before his
remarks saw print, if the ABC programs had shown enough reporters
and editors over the years the standards that their surgeons meet.
Media failures to verify purported statistics were
ubiquitous. A “Staff Reporter” for The Hindu claimed that only
70,000 dog sterilizations were done in all of India last year, while
Rahul Sehgal’s Animal Help Foundation team did 45,000 in Ahmedabad
Beneath the headline “Figures belie NGOs’ ABC claims on dog,” Smitha
Rao of The Times of India misrepresented vaccination and
revaccination counts as unsubstantiated assertions about the numbers
of dogs sterilized.
Much of the Bangalore coverage consisted of reporters merely
repeating the rantings and ravings of local demagogues, without
subjecting any of it to tests of veracity, fairness, or accuracy,
and without presenting any opposing perspective.
Fortunately, apart from having failed to cultivate
sufficient media contacts in advance, the Bangalore ABC
spokespersons did not transgress the other basics for winning over
media in difficult situations, of which the most important is Never
lie to a reporter. You will always get caught, and you will lose
more credibility in five minutes than you have built up in five years
when it happens.
At this writing, while dog bites and even occasional serious
attacks continue to occur in Bangalore, as in all cities, the ABC
programs appear to have begun getting better press. Some of this may
be ascribed to several severely libeled persons serving notice on the
offending media that they may be sued.
The turnabout, however, had already begun before the legal
notices were served. A key part of it was not ascribing to malice
what could be ascribed to ignorance or miscommunication. In India as
elsewhere, animal care and control tends to be a low priority topic,
often handled by rookie reporters. Better informing them helped. So
did making contact with more experienced reporters. The Deccan
Herald, for instance, published some of the most incendiary
criticism of the ABC programs, but did a striking turnabout when the
situation was turned over to an editor who had previously visited
some of the ABC program hospitals.
ANIMAL PEOPLE helped to inform her understanding, and
eventually helped many other Bangalore journalists. Which brings up
the last of the Media Relations for Animal Shelters tips: if a
reporter wants to verify your information, or needs broad
perspective or historical background, we’re here, we’re news media
too, and almost every day we help mass media colleagues to make
heads or tails of complicated animal issues.
(If you don’t have Media Relations for Animal Shelters, send
an e-mail to get the latest updated edition.)

Print Friendly

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.