Though mainstream outlets don't typically have dedicated reporters on pets, it's a hot topic since there are always offbeat hooks or trends to be found.A few years ago, it was enough for pet owners to throw a bag of dry dog food into the shopping cart or change the litter box once a week. But pet ownership, now often called "pet parenting," has evolved at a remarkable rate. According to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, US pet parents will spend $31 billion in 2003 on everything from purchasing new animals to veterinary care, food, supplies, grooming, and boarding. The pet business is also surprisingly recession-proof. "Pet parents are more likely to make cuts in other areas of their lives as opposed to not buying a special magazine or premium pet food," says Rachael Pay, SVP with Euro RSCG Life NRP, which represents Hill's Pet Nutrition. No wonder pet-related journalism has been steadily moving beyond dedicated magazines such as Cat Fancy, Dog Fancy, and the celebrity-pets-oriented Animal Fair, and into the mainstream. "In the past three years, I have seen much greater coverage of pet-related stories in the general media," says Pay. Finding the pet reporter Thus far, only a handful of general-interest newspapers and magazines have gone so far as to add a dedicated pets beat. But David Reiseman, account supervisor with Riester-Robb/Pacific, which represents Veterinary Pet Insurance, says there's usually somebody on staff who takes it on as an informal sub-beat. "In those cases it takes a bit more work to navigate the masthead to identify someone who's not listed as a pet reporter, but may just have an interest there," he says. The one thing pet PR has going for it is that there seems to be plenty of offbeat hooks for feature stories, oftentimes centering on how indulgent pet parents are toward their animals. For instance, Media imPRessions CEO Mark Bouffard represents LifeGem, a company that extracts the carbon from cremated pet remains and turns them into a diamond that bereaved pet parents can wear as jewelry. While the service is also available for human remains, Bouffard says the media is often interested only in the pet angle. "Some people find it not to their liking to do it for themselves or their families...but everyone can relate that they could do this for their pets," he says. LifeGem's pet angle generated front-page coverage in the Chicago Tribune, as well as placements on CNN, the Today show, BBC, Fox News Channel, and in USA Today. Bouffard says that what often helps drive coverage are testimonials from people about why they turned to LifeGem. "Surprisingly, the pet parents were more eager to talk about their pets than they would about a loved one," he adds. Animals are also favorite subjects for many movies. Hank Amman, EVP with Richmond, VA-based agency BCF&M, says that can also be used to leverage a story. Amman, who represents fish-food maker Tetra, says, "This past year we did a satellite b-roll package piggybacking on Finding Nemo, causing a renewed interest in aquariums. We were trying to sell Tetra products, obviously, but we're also trying to grow the hobby." Like many animal-themed campaigns, Amman says the Finding Nemo angle had its greatest success with broadcast, generating 335 local TV stories in 180 markets, largely because it was so visual. Highlighting trends Christen Graham, account manager with Warner Communications, which represents Chomp's line of candy and breath mints for pets, says that in general reporters respond better to trend ideas rather than individual product pitches. "For example, if you're working with The Wall Street Journal, they rarely single out a specific product - it must hang off a trend," she says. "So we pitched the story as healthy ways to reward your pet." Despite the cuddly appeal of many animals, many journalists consider stories about pets to be somewhat frivolous. But Pay points out that offering a veterinarian to provide expert commentary can combat this by lending a certain health-themed gravitas to the idea. "We're working on a story on the holiday season, which is notoriously bad not only for people in terms of weight gain, but also for pets," she says. "So we're providing veterinarians, not only from our client Hill's, but also those with independent practices." ----- Pitching... pets Pitch the trend, not the product. Even pet-loving reporters and producers are resistant to anything that feels like a pure product promotion. Stress the visuals. The old Hollywood adage about how difficult it is to compete with cute children and animals can apply to the media as well. Use pet owners whenever possible. Oftentimes it is the indulgent nature of the human companions that brings an animal-themed story to life.