Outreach, Not Out-of-Reach

This article updates an original article entitled: Time for a change?

This weekend’s counter-demonstration at UCLA is another sign of a growing movement and change in the approach the research community is taking towards defending public interests in scientific research. The actions and growth of Pro-Test, Pro-Test for Science, and Pro-Test Italia have all provided powerful examples of the strength of community efforts to stand for science. While far from universal, we are also seeing steady progress towards new standards for public engagement and education by institutions, organizations, and individuals. Nonetheless, too many institutions are still choosing silence instead of outreach. For them, it’s time for a change.

Press release comes in, journalist is demanding a comment, animal rights activists are arriving for their demonstration – what do you do? For too many organizations the strategy has been to simply ignore it – keep yourself out of reach of journalists and activists. Well there’s only one problem – it doesn’t work.

The science community often receives some fairly standard advice when they are targeted by the activities, press releases, and publicity stunts of animal rights groups. That advice often sounds a little bit like this:

  • If you don’t acknowledge them they will go away
  • Fighting back will just make them fight harder
  • Don’t give them free publicity, the attention just helps them grow.
  • Responding to them just takes time away from more important work

What is the impact in the short term? Will it make the activists go away? How does it affect relationships with journalists? What about your local community? How about your own researchers? Does it make those targeted safer? Does it support them? Does it decrease an institution’s exposure to activists’ campaigns and “bad” publicity?

What about the long term? Does it make an institution more resilient to future campaigns? How does it change long term perceptions about your institution? Is your research community safer in the long run?

Picture Credit: Lorenzo Todaro

Pro-Test Italia: They’re not ignoring the problem.

Unfortunately, there is little solid data or empirical study to support an evidence-based approach in selecting the best strategy for responding to various campaigns by groups opposed to nonhuman animal research.

What if we look to the current state and conclusions of those engaged in fighting back against other anti-science campaigns? How would we feel if those explaining climate change or promoting vaccination stopped discussing their work and let climate change deniers or anti-vaccination lobbyist create their own “truths” for the public. The reality is that more public engagement and accurate information is needed to mount an effective defense of the scientific truths. We must support a robust education on issues such as evolution, climate change, and vaccines.

We have written many times here about education and outreach programs for animal research and the perils of “no comment” approaches. For decades the scientific community has tried to ignore the animal rights activists and yet we have not seen a decline in their efforts. New laws – such as AETA in the US and the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act in the UK – have been effective in  stemming the extremist elements of the movement in some countries, but they cannot address the misinformation which is propagated legally by the movement. While extremism has fallen from the early 2000s, the animal rights movement has continued to grow in number, reach, income, and supporters. Consider PETA, for example. Founded by two activists in 1980, it is now arguably the most visible animal rights group in the world. They claim to have three million members and supporters. PETA’s 2012 revenue of over $30 million, with $15 million going to outreach and international grassroots campaigns, solidly demonstrates its growth over 30 years.

Ignoring PETA has not made them go away.The organization’s survival and growth relies on their regular publicity. They must continue to shock their supporters with new horrors and crimes against animals which justify their continued existence. While they can continue to convince people that atrocities are perpetrated on laboratory animals, they will continue to expand their celebrity line up, supporter numbers and, crucially, donations.

Scientific institutions must call out PETA (and other such groups) when it misrepresents them. They must call out PETA when it promotes violence against them. Many of the public supports PETA because it believes their messaging – it is important that those people have access to the true facts behind the, often groundless, accusations by PETA.

Early action is the best action. Effective communication with a journalist investigating an animal rights press release can help the reporter see that the claims are inaccurate the stop the story in its tracks.

Nor does PETA’s success depend upon attention directed at them from the scientific community. At this point in time, a mix of celebrity endorsements, stunts, and emotive campaigns successfully drive and sustain PETA’s publicity. Additional efforts by the scientific community to counter campaigns of misrepresentation, provide accurate information, and to condemn PETA’s promotion of violence toward scientists can at least make sure that the voices of scientists are heard in the media coverage. In some cases effective engagement early on can help journalists to see that the claims are inaccurate, and stop the story in it’s tracks. While we often see news coverage of accusations by animal rights groups, there are many more stories that never make the newspapers because the institution actively shows the journalist that the claims are without merit – through explaining the research thoroughly or offering tours of the facilities.

As we mentioned before:

An argument can be made that ignoring PETA’s escalating antics and failing to advance a public counter to their claims may have facilitated the success with which PETA has gained support. For example, if there is no public response or condemnation when PETA does something like releasing a videogame that promotes “beating up” scientists, the game is unlikely to go away. There will be little chance that scientists will reach this audience in order to counter the game’s gross misrepresentations of laboratory animal care. If we say nothing, the individuals playing the videogame, the game’s designer, and those providing positive media coverage of the game will fail to receive the message that it is not ok to promote violence against scientists (or others with whom you disagree). In effect, violence against scientists will be further “normalized” as a tactic that can be rationalized or acceptable.

PETA's MMA game depiction of animal research.

PETA’s MMA game depiction of animal research.

So what about the original question?

Press release comes in, journalist is demanding a comment, animal rights activists are arriving for their demonstration – what do you do?

Well the first, and most obvious thing to say is – plan now. Know who is responsible for providing comment. Know exactly who must sign off comments. Know who to talk to to get the journalists inside the lab. Know the facts of your research – how many animals, what species, what purposes. There is no risk in having a fact sheet about your animal research – including case studies – ready to go – better to have one and not need it than need it and not have it! Examples of good case studies can be found on Oxford University’s web pages dedicated to its animal research.

So the press release is in – the first thing to do is to try and give yourself some time to plan. Journalists may phone on a Friday wanting a comment for immediate print, so ask for a few days and promise to provide a full statement just for them. If you offer to invite them into your facility, they will often give more time – most journalists want to get to the bottom of the story – they simply don’t know or understand why and how research is conducted, having only seen an emotively worded press release full of shocking claims by animal rights activists. Your priority is to show them what your research is really about. That starts with how science benefits the public, why animal studies are conducted, and how the research community protects animal welfare.

Of course, why wait for the phone call? Get your journalist in to your lab today. Provide them with the facts of your research. Send press releases that highlight the important work that your researchers are doing. You may find that they not only ignore the press released claims by animal rights groups (which they have seen first hand are false), they may even give you an early heads and forward you the press release lest any other, less informed, journalist picks up the story. And while your at it why stop at journalists, successful outreach programmes have also enabled undergraduate students and members of the local community to tour laboratories and talk to scientists.

Laboratory tours and press releases are only two of  the many ways in which scientists and supporters of medical research can reach out to the public, policy makers and the press,  American Physiological Society has put together an advocacy resource and public outreach toolkit full of great examples and advice.

Putting yourself out of reach of those who would criticize your institution does not work. Organizations both in and out of the media spotlight must understand that outreach is the best way of preventing and handling a negative story created by animal rights groups. While many scientists, educators, and advocates already engage, it seems that too many organizations and institutions continue with the old approaches that don’t work for the short- or long-term. It’s time for a change.

5 responses to “Outreach, Not Out-of-Reach

  1. Brilliant as ever, lets take it to ’em. To be honest compared to the resources of larger universities and medical charities $30 million is a drop in the ocean – we shouldn’t be outflanked!

  2. Another reason for coming forward with what it is you do and why, is that it makes third party partners stronger. Unity , think unity towards the common goals official progress and saving lives

  3. Speakers from an APS symposium a while back give great first-hand stories about how their outreach efforts paid off. The first two speakers lay out the issue, the last two outline their institution’s efforts–very compelling stories: http://the-aps.org/mm/SciencePolicy/AnimalResearch/Current-Issues/Public-Outreach-Toolkit

  4. Great post and spot on