The progressive animal rights organization has a ruthless
getting coverage in the mass media
-- with enviable results.
For the record, I am neither a vegan nor a vegetarian. Nor am I an
honorary member of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
One of my best friends is, however, and he works at the PETA
headquarters in the decrepit asphalt Venice of Norfolk, Va.
I started following PETA's activities because of my personal
connection to it, and as I did, I became engrossed with its media
tactics, which, to sum them up would be to say they say and do
anything at all to draw attention. It sounds simple and obvious enough
-- anything at all -- but it clearly isn't, or other groups would be
following its lead. Other than the ACLU, which progressive advocacy
group (yes, PETA is progressive) garners a regular share of news
coverage across the country on a daily basis? Not a single one.
PETA goes after places, people, events and ideas of social meaning and
finds a way to seize the headlines -- or create its own. It will do
whatever it takes to expose people to its point of view. When PETA
asks an agricultural town to change its name from say, Cowtown to
Liberated Cowtown, it knows that a bored reporter in the surrounding
region will fall for it and write a story about it, and that a bunch
of readers sick of stories about septic tanks and cattle prices will
fall for the headline. Somewhere in that story will be the sentence:
"A PETA representative told the mayor that killing animals is wrong."
When you're writing a story about an organization, the last person in
the world you want to get your information from is a member of the
communications staff. But in my case that's exactly who I wanted to
talk to. My first interviewee was Colleen O' Brien, PETA's
As bluntly as possible, I asked her about PETA's sending vegetarian
chefs to Camp Casey in Crawford, Texas during Bush's August vacation:
Do you feel like you made a good return on that investment? After all,
PETA is not Morgan Stanley; while it's a $25 million a year operation,
it still has to pick its battles.
O' Brien started by spinning me, saying, "Vegetarianism is a
cruel-free way of living." She said PETA went into Camp Casey with a
non-partisan agenda -- "Those folks were out there, hungry" -- and
gave them a vegetarian alternative to eating "decomposing corpses."
After I let her go on with this for a while (and yes, putting her
quotes in this article is a successful advancement of the animal
rights agenda), I tried to bring her back to the issue of whether PETA
had mercilessly seized on the fact that hundreds of bored reporters
were in Camp Casey, looking to add color to their stories about a poor
mother who lost her son in an awful war.
Next to speak with me was "Karin Robertson," manager of PETA's Fish
Empathy Project. There are quotations around "Karin" because her real
name is GoVeg.com. She had it legally changed from Karin Robertson
back in 2003, a move that produced piles and piles of headlines (and
now a mention here). It still gets a mention pretty much anytime
GoVeg's Fish Empathy Project gets in the news.
After we talked about the horrors of the way fish are treated and how
they have feelings etc., we came to GoVeg's approach to dealing with
the media. GoVeg told me that it's almost impossible to get the press
to deal with an issue directly. "They only come up with as many sound
bites as possible." I agreed.
"That's why," she said, "we work really hard to make a concise point."
A high-vitamin-content sound bite. That's what happened with Brit Hume
and the exploding ass, and it's also what happened with GoVeg's
project to get the Long Beach California aquarium to stop serving
Who does peta2 go after with its finite budget? "The kids who are
savvy." That's the same group Pentagon recruiting manuals tell you to
hoard like dragons: the influencers.
It was a delight to be in the presence of a winner. How rare to see a
non-profit group beating our commercial society at its own game, in
aid of something that is truly good for the world. My visit confirmed
for me what I had come to believe as a casual observer: PETA is the
most successful, iron-fisted, 501c3 I have ever witnessed; and the
only one to make it out of the progressive slums and wage a winning
battle at the mass media level.
In tragic contrast to PETA are the scores of nonprofits that, despite
good faith and hard work, watch their resources sink into the sand,
their messages ignored by the public and the media. When I asked
Colleen O' Brien why other progressive causes don't adopt PETA's
approach, she gave me an absent look. "Their tactics are different
from ours ... It could be that they are hesitant." That's all I could
get out of her.