PR vs. the hidden camera

September 14, 2009

As long as cameras have been small enough to stuff inside a duffel bag, a suitcase or a pocket, they’ve been used to expose actions people would probably rather have kept private. In most of those cases, there’s a PR team somewhere working hard to earn their paychecks — or perhaps reconsidering their career paths.

A recent video from Mercy for Animals is the next in a long line of hidden-camera exposés in which the struggle between big business and little animals is thrust into the sunlight. MFA has made a splash with its hidden-camera video from a hatchery in Iowa. (WARNING: It’s incredibly unpleasant to watch, no matter your feelings on the matter of raising animals for food. Seriously.) Among other nastiness, the video depicts the hatchery’s young male birds being tossed into a grinder, meeting their immediate demise.

Happy Monday.

There’s an important communication lesson here. For PR pros who might one day find themselves in a position of needing to defend some ethically questionable practices, this illustrates the importance of planning for a crisis. You need to be prepared to respond. You might not predict a hidden-camera exposé of your factory practices, but you have to be able to predict what your biggest detractors might say about your organization. And on a personal level, you have to be prepared to defend your organization.

But defending your organization doesn’t mean sticking your fingers in your ears and ignoring criticism. If you want to be more than a mouthpiece — if you want to be a true counselor — you need to serve as an arbiter of sorts between your organization and its various publics. (In using the plural form of the word “public,” I’ve triggered vivid flashbacks to reading PR textbooks. Wild.) Your organization has a story to tell, but your detractors probably have some valid points. Making meaningful, deliberate changes to your operations in response could have the dual benefits of easing detractors’ minds while improving your organization’s public perception, safety record, ethical standing or even bottom line.

In this particular case, the owners of the hatchery might point out that extreme measures like closing up shop and going vegan — which MFA hints at near the end of its video — is neither the only solution nor the best solution. The owners of the hatchery might avoid, though, saying things like “Hey, it used to be worse!” That’s beside the point and won’t satisfy anyone. If they wanted to be bold and more direct, they could point out that these male chicks are going to die now or die later on their way to the grocery store’s refrigerator section. So is killing them now so bad?

For more discussion on this topic, please go read Bill Sledzik’s post on the matter — and his readers’ comments. Bill is a PR professor at Kent State in Ohio, and he brings a smart, sharp perspective to this issue (and so many others).

Photo courtesy of ceanandjen on Flickr