Business Strategies: Activists peck away at poultry industry
An ever-present thorn in poultry producers’ sides, the animal-rights industry is ramping up its attacks. This fall, a group calling itself “The Cancer Project” filed a lawsuit in Connecticut against chain restaurants for serving grilled chicken without a cancer warning label. It’s not the first time, and it won’t be the last.
An animal-rights organization is calling itself a “Cancer Project”? Yes. And the group’s deliberately misleading name is practically its only source of credibility. And when activists capture the public’s attention with wordsmithing sleight-of-hand, industry is usually caught flat-footed.
The best way to battle these activist groups is by taking the squawk out of their media presence with a public-relations campaign on your own side.
Here’s a quick backgrounder for the uninitiated: The Cancer Project is an offshoot of a ridiculously misnamed vegan group called the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM). About 60 percent of PCRM’s budget comes from the founder of the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida. The result is a network of faux health groups that work to reduce everyone’s consumption of drumsticks, wings, eggs and many other sources of animal protein.
PCRM and The Cancer Project have a combined annual budget exceeding $10 million to misinform the public, threaten companies with bogus lawsuits, and perpetuate anti-meat propaganda. This lawsuit is just the latest chapter in The Cancer Project’s save-the-farm-animals script: It sued hot dog makers in August seeking the same bogus cancer labels.
Add to that a 2006 lawsuit the group filed in California. At least in that case, the California Attorney General’s office opposed the stunt, writing that a cancer warning for grilled chicken “would not be in the public interest.” Grilling chicken, it turns out, kills pathogens. And that makes it safer to eat. (Who knew?)
At the end of the day, we can’t stop animal-rights hacks from spending money on frivolous lawsuits. But we can change the way Americans hear about them and internalize the resulting messages.
Now here’s the hard part: This requires a more aggressive posture than industry itself is usually prepared to embrace.
It’s not enough to tell a positive story about poultry producers. Activists who want to put you out of business can always find a way to outspend you. Many of them are not above lying about you, or even staging the sort of gruesome photographs that cause bankruptcies.
They often get away with it because pressure groups usually have no natural predators in the public-opinion world. (We’re all accustomed to seeing election-year negative advertising, but when was the last time you saw someone apply that tactic to an activist opponent?)
There will always be agitators of all sorts clucking their anti-meat agenda. But an aggressive public-relations strategy that doesn’t mince words about these wingnuts can go a long way toward managing the threat.
“The Cancer Project” is only a real cancer charity if the news media says so. Similarly, the Humane Society of the United States is only a real “humane society” if reporters and editors overlook the group’s lack of affiliation with pet shelters.
Who’s going to make sure they don’t run the table and fool everyone? Business as usual won’t cut it anymore. Playing offense instead of defense isn’t easy, and it requires a constant gut-check. But the results can be very satisfying. I’d be happy to talk with anyone in the poultry industry about what it entails.
It’s time to ask yourself what you’re prepared to do to survive in an increasingly hostile public-opinion environment. Winning often requires tactics that make good people uncomfortable. But it sure beats losing.