Publicity Pimps and Extreme Schemes: PETA's Public Relations Crisis and the Future of Animal Welfare Movement
By Robin Roth
A fur-wearing model is pelted with blobs of blood; a nubile, naked woman says she'd rather be bare than wear fur; fast food chains are denigrated with murder; billions of farm animals are murdered in conditions likened to concentration camps. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is known more for controversial campaigns such as these than for its role as a premiere American nonprofit. Not only are Americans ambivalent about PETA's role and animal rights in general, but some argue the organization's controversial tactics continually create public relations crisis that threatens to harm the entire animal rights movement, along with nonprofit organizations committed to the animal liberation cause.
"The world's largest and best known animal rights organization" is also "the most successful radical group in America" (Specter, 2003), and is dedicated to wholeheartedly stopping widespread torture and abuse of nonhuman animals. Founded two decades ago by Ingrid Newkirk, PETA's controversial leader, the group's tactics are often grossly offensive; with an outrageous publicity formula that detractors say does more harm than good. Controversial advertising campaigns such as the recent "Holocaust on Your Plate," makes a detailed comparison between "human genocide and the treatment of animals" that's deliberately designed to "garner as much attention as sympathy." (Mnookin, 2003) Condemned by nonprofits such as the Holocaust Memorial Museum, Anti-Defamation League, and hundreds of others as offensive, irresponsible, attention-getting stunts, PETA has offended so many people since its inception, according to a recent article in the New Yorker (Specter, 2003) that "just to hear the word PETA is enough to make many people shudder." But are PETA's schemes so shocking that they repel those whom they wish to attract? Are the twenty-year old nonprofit's tactics adversely affecting the small percentage of nonprofit organizations actually working to protect animals? What's the actual impact of so much negative publicity on this radical group and the animals it seeks to protect?
PETA's controversial campaigns have worked to the organization's advantage, Specter (2003) reports, quoting philosopher Peter Singer, whose book "Animal Liberation" (1975) is both widely credited as starting the animal rights movement and impelling Newkirk to start PETA. While Newkirk constantly risks alienating and offending people - even her constituents-through radical campaigns, she believes her tactics work overwhelmingly for the good of both the organization and the nonhuman animals PETA fights to protect. PETA's passionate pursuit to protect nonhuman animals is uncompromising, and perceived public relations calamities work for the benefit of both PETA and its social justice mission. Newkirk's response to the PETA controversy reveals not only the type of trademark candor that makes PETA both respected and reviled, but her commitment to the organization's overall mission. "The truth is that extremism and outrage provide the fundamental fuel for many special interest groups," Newkirk said. "We are complete press sluts. It is our obligation. We would be worthless if we were just polite and did not make any waves" (Specter, 2003).
"Breathless in its mission" (Specter, 2003), PETA's response to a potential publicity predicament is reflected in its thirteen-word mission statement -- "Animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on or use for entertainment" - and embodies the extremism the organization is known for, along with its passionate conviction to abolish all forms of animal cruelty. And no where does PETA's passion prove more powerful than their current concentration on American corporations' annual rendering of billions of cows, chickens, pigs, and more into meat. As PETA believes this is the most widespread and heinous abuse of animals, Newkirk continually meets with dozens of top PETA strategists to actualize the first part of their mission: making Americans "meet their meat" and make the connection between the sentient creature confined in a factory farm and what's for dinner. While Newkirk has been called many things in her long career with PETA, and has the "popular image of a monster" (Specter, 2003); she exemplifies the ideals of successful nonprofit leadership, as nonprofit organizations are reflections of their leaders (Steckel Lehman (1997), particularly those with the vision and passion to take an idea and turn it into a social reality. As the leader behind one of the nation's most successful animal advocacy groups, Newkirk and her mission are living proof that social justice movements must always have "somebody radical enough to alienate the mainstream. For every Malcolm X there is a Martin Luther King, Jr., . . . and Newkirk and PETA provide a similar dynamic for groups like the Humane Society of the United States' (Specter, 2003).
PETA's passionate conviction to social change is more than a focus on notoriety, however; controversial campaigns not only grab the public's attention, but also play a major role in capturing public support for animal rights in general. And support is growing. As the best known animal rights group on the planet, PETA raises more than fifteen million dollars annually, primarily from individual donations from its seven hundred and fifty thousand members and supporters, all of which finds its way into PETA's plethora of departments, websites and international campaigns (Specter, 2003).
Despite the potentially lethal impact of PETA's extreme public relations schemes - on both the animal liberation movement and nonprofits committed to this cause - PETA's increasingly radical behavior and publicity stunts embody the challenge confronting the nonprofit sector that is based as much on politics, philosophy, and morals as economics. And nowhere is PETA's push for change realized more than in Corporate America. Bowing to PETA pressure, McDonalds became the first major company in United States history to require its suppliers to humanely treat animals, followed by Burger King, Safeway, and Wendy's. When it's considered that Americans slaughter nine billion animals each year, primarily for food, PETA's progress in affecting the moral shift in attitudes toward nonhumans is mind-blowing (Specter, 2003).
PETA' s revolutionary blend of advocacy, passionate leadership, and commitment to social change exemplifies the best in American advocacy through the nonprofit sector. America's best nonprofits are sharply committed to their cause, and rely on common factors such as innovation, creativity and committed leadership. (Steckel Lehman, 15-17, 85). PETA's use of publicity and controversy has impacted all nonprofit organizations dedicated to animal issues by raising public awareness on the unspeakable cruelties afflicted on nonhuman animal. Desperate means call for radical measures for those fighting to stop animal suffering. And with major corporations to the United States government taking animal issues more seriously - along with an increase in awareness about animal rights in general -- PETA finally seems to be "having it their way."
Mnookin, Seth. "A Plate of Controversy." Newsweek 10 March, 2003.
Specter, Michael. "The Extremist: The Woman Behind the Most Successful Radical Group in America." New Yorker 14 Apr. 2003: 52-67.
Steckel, Richard, and Jennifer Lehman. America's Best Nonprofits. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, 1997.