In its 140-year history, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) had never been the lead on the ground in the aftermath of a natural disaster. But when Hurricane Katrina hit and local shelters kept calling for help, the magnitude of need became clear.
"With the Florida hurricane, we raised a modest amount of money and gave [it] to shelters in the area," says Jo Sullivan, ASPCA SVP of development and communications. "We thought that's what we'd be called on to do again. We aren't trained in disaster relief."
The ASPCA decided to set up and lead a coalition of more than 400 animal welfare organizations, bolstered by a media relations effort.
Tens of thousands of animals were estimated homeless. A team of staff and volunteers was dispatched August 29 to Louisiana, while New York staff began to coordinate a nationwide network.
"We were able to react quickly because we spent years developing relationships with animal welfare agencies," Sullivan says. "Every ASPCA department worked together. It was the perfect storm of people. It was the only storm that was good."
An aggressive, widespread media relations campaign was initiated, and the ASPCA Web site was leveraged to inform the public and the media.
"Because there is no Red Cross for animal welfare, people [needed to] know to come to us," Sullivan says.
Conference calls, conducted twice daily among GS Schwartz & Co. and ASPCA staff in Louisiana and others who were coordinating shelter and donations, helped generate stories.
"We [got] updates and saw how we'd be able to help via the media and membership base," says Eric Rayvid, former GS Schwartz senior account supervisor who in March joined the ASPCA as senior director of communications.
Human-interest stories and data were culled and promoted. Rescue updates and fund totals were released almost daily, and e-mail newsletters to membership were also sent to media. Everything was subject to "release approval" from Sullivan to ensure accuracy, consistency, and to belay rumors.
Disaster relief efforts became the home page on all ASPCA Web sites. Press releases, rescue information, and photos were updated several times daily.
The campaign was "straightforward," but grueling. "It was all I could do 20 hours a day, six weeks straight," Rayvid says.
More than 15,000 animals have been rescued in Louisiana and Mississippi. At least 360 were reunited with owners. The ASPCA collected more than $15 million in donations to date, which is mostly attributed to the more than 700 million media hits the campaign garnered.
"We thought if we could raise $250,000, it would really help," says Sullivan. "About 70% of donations were new to the ASPCA file. Those people never donated before, so it had to be a result of the media."
Rayvid says no organization that needed help was turned down.
The ASPCA continues working with GS Schwartz on other projects. Post-Katrina messaging is incorporated into everything the ASPCA is doing now.
"Katrina is the biggest thing [that has happened] in our 140 years," Sullivan says.
PR team: American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (New York) and GS Schwartz & Co. (New York)
Campaign: No Pet Project for the ASPCA
Duration: August 29, 2005 - ongoing
Budget: Less than $100,000
Commitment and leadership of divergent resources drove the success of this campaign. No one was prepared for the magnitude of the disaster, and the ASPCA took it on without hesitation or much money. It's remarkable that the ASPCA so quickly was able to adapt to a situation well outside its everyday operations.
Cooperation and coordination were key to success in disseminating information, which certainly helped generate monetary influx and volunteer help. The media coverage was aided by the ASPCA's commitment to culling information, evaluating it for accuracy and consistency, dispensing it widely, and updating it.