Media Relations: IFAW seizes press' interest by shifting focus of tiger story

There are only about 5,000 tigers in the wild, but as many as 10,000 are kept as pets in the US, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).

There are only about 5,000 tigers in the wild, but as many as 10,000 are kept as pets in the US, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).

And tiger ownership has popped up in the news, with coverage of Roy Horn - of Siegfried and Roy - being mauled by one of his own tigers, and a man in New York who kept a tiger and alligator in his apartment.

The IFAW felt that the problem of people treating big cats like cute kittens was getting worse and decided to draw attention to the problem in the media, aiming to put pressure on Congress to pass a bill that would make it harder to own such animals.

Strategy

While the Horn and New York stories had news appeal, they didn't reveal the scope of the problem, says Chris Cutter, IFAW's communications manager. The IFAW wanted to show that this was a national problem, not just isolated incidents that were fodder for late-night comedians. It hoped that by doing that, ensuing national media coverage would help push the Captive Wildlife Safety Act through Congress. The bill, which had been passed by the Senate but had stalled in the House of Representatives, would make it harder for people to transport wildlife across state lines.

The IFAW had worked with Edelman on previous projects and brought the agency in again on this issue.

"Roy Horn and the guy in New York were symptoms of a larger story, which is how easy it is to get these animals," says Edelman SVP Dushka Zapata. What made the story pertinent was also a key hurdle. Cutter and Zapata say the media might not be interested in more tiger stories, as it had just reported on two back-to-back tiger attacks.

Tactics

The IFAW and Edelman decided to focus on another local event and use the momentum from those previous incidents to catapult the story to the national level and present it in a much larger context. The New Jersey Department of Fish and Game was preparing to confiscate 24 tigers from a New Jersey home, which was keeping the tigers in a so-called compound.

"If we did nothing, this story still would have been picked up by the local media," says Cutter. "We had to frame it not as a news story, but as an issue."

The IFAW and Edelman initially got the cold shoulder from many national news outlets, as they had expected, because many in the media felt they already had reported on tigers. But the organization and Edelman continued to push the issue behind the stories, and finally got a bite from ABC News, which agreed to do a larger story using exclusive video footage that the IFAW had taken from inside the compound. World News Tonight ran the story on the larger issue of keeping large cats as pets the night before the Department of Fish and Game seized the tigers.

Results

The day of the tiger seizure, a throng of local and regional media representatives showed up to cover the event. The IFAW also received calls from CBS News and regional morning shows after the ABC piece ran. And a Reuters story was picked up by international media.

"Although media impressions on this story totaled somewhere between 80 million to110 million worldwide, the real success was that right after the move, the House of Representatives passed the Captive Wildlife Safety Act," says Cutter. "About one month after the launch of our campaign, President Bush signed the act into law, making it much more difficult to buy tigers for pets. Believe it or not, before we launched the campaign, it was easy and legal to order a tiger off the internet and have it delivered to you."

Future

The IFAW will now focus on state laws concerning large-cat ownership, continuing to draw media and public attention to the larger issue and not just to isolated news stories.

PR team: International Fund for Animal Welfare (Yarmouth Port, MA) and Edelman (Mountain View, CA)

Campaign: Stopping the ownership of big cats

Time frame: August to December 2003

Budget: Pro-bono (budget would have been approximately $30,000)

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