ANALYSIS: New comms tactics test animal research groups - Last week's PR launch by the pro-vivisection lobby trialled fresh tactics in the ongoing PR battle between animal rights activists and their opponents. Ed Shelton reports

The publication last week of PR material from the animal research

establishment, represents a fresh twist in a communications war that has

been underway for almost a century.



The Research Defence Society (RDS), which has been putting the

pro-vivisection case since 1908, took the battle to the enemy last week

with the publication of an emotive pamphlet 'The hope, the challenge,

the people'. The document, one of a series to be published, is the first

step in a campaign which amounts to an acceptance by the pro-research

lobby of a limit to the traditional way in which they have used PR to

defend their corner.



The firm most frequently targeted by animal rights activists is

Huntingdon Life Sciences, Europe's biggest contract researcher, with a

turnover of £75m and 1,300 UK and US staff.



HLS's chief PR tactic against firm and sometimes violent protestors has

been the traditional science establishment approach of honesty about

what was going on inside, it claims.



But senior managers at HLS accept there has been a major perception

problem in the past. Marketing director Andrew Gay says: 'For years

scientists have not been good at informing the public about the benefits

of what they do. A lot of propaganda has been allowed to fill the gap,'

he says.



To date, the scientists' strategy has been a factual one based on an

openness about the need for and benefits of animal experimentation,

together with a weakly-articulated pledge to minimise the number of

animals used, and their suffering wherever possible.



But this information-based strategy has not played well against the

emotionally-charged campaigns of the anti-vivisection lobby. Gay says:

'Their activity has been about cuddly animals with things sticking out

of their heads - God knows where they get those picture from. The

scientific rationale that is used to counter that does not have an

impact on that emotional level.'



The animal research establishment, in the form of the RDS, is to take on

the anti-vivisectionists on their own terms, by adopting an emotional

rather than purely factual approach. Hence 'The hope, the challenge, the

people', which features testimonies from six case studies of people who

are all impacted by the use of such research.



There is, for example, an interview with Laura, a 16-year-old cystic

fibrosis sufferer whose medicine was tested on animals and who says that

without that work she would be dead.



The campaign also features a GP, a surgeon, a research professor, a lab

technician and a vet. Each is convinced of the necessity of vivisection

and provides a human dimension to the otherwise dry discussion.



RDS executive director Dr Mark Matfield says: 'This represents a change

of tack in our PR. We have now realised the issue is about people.'



Like many modernised comms programmes, the concept was developed

following focus group work in which a variety of groups - RDS members,

as well as teachers and schoolchildren - all said defending animal

testing needed to be on a more emotional basis.



RDS comms director Barbara Davies says the new approach 'is more

engaging - it presents the issue through the eyes of real people

involved'.



But National Anti-Vivisection Society director Jan Creamer is dismissive

of the pro-research lot's attempts to humanise their campaigns. 'They

are talking about people who suffer, but the animal experiments do not

tell you anything about people, just about animals,' she insists.



She says putting the message in an emotional context could be

counter-productive as it highlights the fallibility of the research

establishment: 'This strategy will backfire on them. One of the problems

we have had is the "Trust me I'm a doctor idea", but we are seeing now

that doctors are just people and they are capable of making mistakes and

telling lies too.'



Organisations such as NAVS, and the more militant Animal Liberation

Front - which has carved a niche in attacking fur shops and research

sites - started targeting specific establishments and the City

institutions that back them, one at a time. It was at this stage that

the scientific lobby began to take the PR challenge presented by the

groups much more seriously.



The 'one at a time' tactic has been successful in closing some firms

down, frightening investors and generally intimidating all involved.



But it is not just animal research that is threatened. Matfield says

countering the anti-lobby's tactics is now being recognised as a

priority beyond the science labs.



He says: 'The change in tactics by the activists to focus on one company

at a time may well have caught the attention of radical protestors in

other areas. The fear is that we might see this emerging in other

fields.'



The possibility of the sort of direct action that successfully

undermined HLS's relationship with the City, being used to support the

cause of environmentalists or anti-capitalists is one of which the

government is aware, campaigners say. And ultimately, this may be the

wider importance of the RDS initiative.



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