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,'
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
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
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.