Thanks to a more aggressive PR approach and new PR director Nicholas Braden, the Humane Society of the United States has been able to raise its coverage as it works to promote animal rights.
The adage that any story featuring kids or animals is bound to generate media attention might have been true in the past. But these days, The Humane Society of the United States is taking a far more aggressive PR stance to stand out among the national nonprofit groups looking for coverage.
"Given the extreme competition for press coverage, a passive approach simply cannot work," says Wayne Pacelle, the newly named CEO for the animal-protection organization. "We not only have to be aggressive in advancing our message, but we have to be pushing good, solid campaigns and services."
Much of the credit for this new, proactive PR attitude goes to Nicholas Braden, who joined the Humane Society two years ago after working as a VP at Ketchum and also as the director of communications for WorldSpace Satellite Radio Network.
"One of the things I really tried to do when I came on board was to get us to step back and think a bit more about our campaigns," Braden says. "We began to take a closer look at each topic and decide whether it was really appropriate for a press release or some other method of communications, such as an op-ed piece or just calling up a series of key reporters to get the message out."
Thanks to the efforts of Braden and his staff, the society is on a PR hot streak, raising the number of stories in which it is featured or mentioned from 1,812 in 2002 to nearly 6,300 last year.
"Wayne Pacelle did a piece for us on animal-rights issues in the political arena, and it came in very clean, very unbiased," says Robin Reid, assistant editor at Campaigns and Elections. "It was pretty much what we had hoped for. I also do work for People as a correspondent, and in my various roundups that involve animals, they usually come through and are very efficient and quick. They get it and are very modern in their media relations."
Getting the job done
With 8 million members and constituents and an annual budget of around $80 million, the Humane Society is hardly your run-of-the-mill nonprofit. The Washington, DC-based group issues about 25 press releases per month, ranging from news-you-can-use advice on how to handle wildlife problems around the home to comments on issues, such as the pending legislation on the use of animals in product testing.
Braden does this all with a staff of six and no outside agency support. Indeed, only four of the staffers, including Braden, handle direct media outreach. With such a demanding workload, Braden works hard to make sure the staff doesn't get burned out on a particular series of issues.
"I've been pretty good at giving them things that they want to work on," he says. "Our media-relations manager likes to work on anti-cruelty issues, so I steer those her way."
Braden operates with a certain amount of autonomy, although he communicates regularly with Pacelle. "Nick does handle a wide range of subjects within the domain of the organization, and that allows me to focus on major campaigns," notes Pacelle. "It's a good balance, but we are not in one another's hair all of the time."
Rachel Querry, deputy director of media relations, points out that the boost in coverage is coming at a time when few media outlets have a designated animal or pets reporter.
"There's usually someone who's related enough to an issue that we can target them," Querry adds. "Environ- mental reporters cover some of our issues. A lot of our stories fall under agricultural news, and a lot of pet topics will be covered by parenting and family writers."
It helps that most reporters have a good impression of the Humane Society and its causes, Querry adds. "We're well received. But like any group, you always have the problem of a reporter having too many good stories to cover at once and not being able to get them all in."
One way the Humane Society has gotten around that is by tailoring some of its outreach around breaking news. "There was legislation that we were pushing for years in Washington that would address the exotic-pet trade and private ownership of large cat species," Querry says. "Then when the unfortunate accident happened with Roy Horn [of Siegfried & Roy], the issue was put on the national scene and we were able to help get legislation passed within a few months. It was just a matter of getting on the radar screen in Congress."
Braden points out that the group also has been able to use the opinion pages in leading outlets to help educate the public on ongoing animal-related issues. "Our director of captive wildlife, Richard Furanado, did an op-ed piece on the national zoo problems that we helped place in The Washington Post, and we subsequently got four broadcast news stories out of it," he says.
Despite a steady stream of press releases, "believe it or not, I would say 60% of our PR is reactive," says Braden, adding that that places additional pressure on the staff when reporters begin flooding the office with calls on a breaking story.
The Humane Society also regularly partners with other animal-related groups on campaigns.
"At any given moment, there are at least one or two major worldwide issues that we'll work with a coalition on," Braden explains. "For instance, we are working with the World Society for the Protection of Animals on the whaling issue. I did the work within the US, and they did the work in Europe. We coordinate not only so we're not calling the same reporters, but also so we can lend the perspective of both our organizations to the topic."
Working together is a highly effective way of combining efforts to deliver a unified message, says Jonathan Owen, head of media for the London-based WSPA. The two groups work together to share media resources and "synergize our energies" to achieve maximum impact, he adds.
One group the society does not work with is People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). "We kind of look at it in terms of the pendulum," notes Braden. "We come down as a more mainstream animal-protection organization, and PETA is a little bit on the other side of the pendulum."
Despite its recent PR success, Braden says the society still deals with a lot of misconceptions, such as the notion that the national organization controls or operates all the local humane societies and animal shelters. "We do provide them with a lot of support, but we don't control them," he says.
But the national headquarters works closely with its 10 regional offices, encouraging members to focus on the local implications of animal-related issues, while Braden and Querry develop the national perspective.
To help make sure everyone stays on the same page, Querry says she and Braden meet representatives from all the regional offices several times a year to coordinate strategies and messages. "We also do periodic media training," she adds. "Sometimes that's done at the annual Animal Care Expo, and once a year they come to Washington."
Braden and his staff have done an admirable job of not only raising the profile of the Humane Society, but also of educating the public about issues involving both companion pets and wildlife. Pacelle points out that the organization's long-term goal is to leverage PR and other tools to shift how Americans actually treat animals.
"The challenge is to be able to weigh in meaningfully on the wide range of topics that we cover, but also to hone in on a few major campaigns and make them effective," Pacelle says. "When I speak of 'effective,' I mean that we are sparking real change in public or corporate policy."
PR director Nicholas Braden
Deputy director of media relations Rachel Querry
Media relations manager Karen Louden Allanach
Media relations associate Belinda Mager
PR assistant Cynthy Mellonas