PETA’s #FakeNews animal abuse is PR and animal welfare malpractice

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By: Dustin Siggins

Earlier this month, a PR group working on behalf of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) asked a news reporter to pretend a cat is being abused in a video purported to raise awareness about animal abuse.

This is public relations malpractice – especially in an era where #FakeNews is so prevalent.

According to Mashable, the public relations agency asked Mashable’s reporter to “debut this video of a cat, created with computer-generated imagery (CGI), being abused, which will have been planted on YouTube anonymously by the ad agency who created it for PETA.”

The pitch continued:

Your posting of the provocative piece would simply be to acknowledge that it's in circulation – not to make any claims about its authenticity.

The plan appears to have been to let viewers know the video was fake, after it had ginned up outrage.

When the video has drawn the critical response and the number of views we're anticipating (ideally, into the millions), we would then have you reveal to the world that the cat was NOT harmed, but was actually created with CGI by posting this behind-the-scenes video. It reveals the reasons for the creation of the first video and asks people to avoid circuses that use lions, tigers, or any other live animals.

PETA’s President attempted to explain away their behavior in comments to the Post, blaming the ad agency they had hired and describing the idea as “ill-conceived.”

“There was never … any attempt to keep people in the dark that what they had seen was fake. The only issue here is timing.” Newkirk argued in an email to The Washington Post. “Would they realize immediately or would they be told after they reacted?”

According to Newkirk, the pitch sent by the ad agency’s PR firm was “not a pitch that PETA would make,” though Newkirk also told the Post that PETA “knew the PR company was looking for a partner to promote the videos, with the goal of getting people to be outraged about what was being done to a fake cat.”

Mashable immediately outed PETA for this attempt at public relations malpractice. They are not the only people outraged. National Animal Interest Alliance President Patti Strand told me that fake videos are an old trick for the animal rights organization. “PETA and their fellow travelers have been staging phony cruelty films from the beginning,” said Strand, whose group has compiled some of PETA’s and other animal extremists’ most heinous – and dishonest – animal cruelty films.

Swell Communications founder and CEO Marana Moore – disclosure, I was a founding partner of Swell – had this to say:

With consumer trust at a new all-time low, promoting misinformation – even with "good" intent – is a dangerous gamble for any brand. 

Even more importantly, a misguided attempt to publicize a fake animal abuse video could undermine efforts to expose genuine animal hardships in the future. 

Mashable did the only thing any self-preserving media outlet can do in this era of fake news: tell the truth. Public relations firms and brands looking to maintain any credibility with the public would be wise to do the same. 

Michael Longo, a freelance videographer who primarily works with musicians, artists, and non-profits, was likewise critical. “There is no shortage of video out there featuring actual animal abuse. Why spend all this money on producing a fake video when you could spend that on services that legitimately help animals?”

According to Longo, PETA’s strategy “seems silly, and counterproductive,” though he also said that “the silver lining to this controversy for PETA might be that more people are aware of their agenda and animal rights in general.”

It is to Mashable’s credit that its editors exposed PETA’s dishonesty. Their reporting was followed up by coverage at The Washington Post and elsewhere. Protecting animals from unnecessary harm is a worthwhile goal, but lying is not – especially when it involves faking horrible abuse to a pet.

This is not the first animal abuse controversy that has enveloped PETA. The group was discovered to have killed almost 2,500 pets at its Norfolk, Virginia shelter in 2014. As reported by Huffington Post, “Just 23 dogs and 16 cats were adopted” in 2014 at the shelter, which took in over 3,300 animals.

As Director of Communications for PIJAC – and as a former reporter and public relations consultant – I am quite familiar with the process of creating the best pitches, angles, and headlines to accomplish one’s organizational goals. Strategies and tactics, however, must be underpinned by ethics and integrity.

Clearly, PETA has neither. Regretfully, many people might not care, if comments below the Post article and elsewhere are any indication. In the era of #FakeNews, agendas often take precedence over truth.

Dustin Siggins is Director of Communications and Public Affairs for the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC).

Author: pijacadmin | Tags: PETA, #FakeNews

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