SPCA Leader Paying the Price of Prominence

Activist organizations often position their leaders as experts and opinion leaders on relevant issues, which makes perfect sense from a communication standpoint. Who is in a better position to articulate what the organization stands for and to argue its positions in the court of public opinion?

But you need to be careful when climbing onto the bully pulpit because the bully pulpit sometimes comes crashing down around you.

That’s what happened to Robin Starr, CEO of the Richmond, Va., SPCA. She has been a vocal advocate of animal rights not only locally but nationally as the Richmond SPCA has been recognized as a showcase animal shelter. Recently, Starr’s SPCA sharply criticized the reinstatement of Michael Vick to the NFL following his prison sentence for running a dogfighting ring. “Vick has not yet demonstrated that his remorse is sincere or that his irresponsible, cruel and criminal behaviors are likely to change,” the Richmond SPCA said in a statement.

In an ironic tragedy, Starr’s 16-year-old dog Louie died after being left in her car on a hot August morning. Starr’s husband had put the dog in the car to accompany the CEO to the SPCA office, but Starr was unaware.

The news broke a week after the incident. The story went national. Starr’s detractors — and there are many because of her vocal nature — pointed out in comments on news websites and blogs that Starr has shown little sympathy for those guilty of mistreating animals. They suggested she should get a taste of her own medicine.

Of course, there is a big difference between someone who runs a dogfighting ring for profit and someone who unknowingly leaves an animal in a hot car. But then, the public doesn’t always make such delineations. They hear the news and they revel in the irony of an animal advocate whose mistake led to the death of an animal.

This incident is rife with public relations and communications miscues that, if avoided, might have minimized the reputational damage it is causing:

  • It took a full week for the Richmond SPCA to even acknowledge that the tragedy had occurred. And then the SPCA provided a statement only because a local news organization was about to break the story. The Richmond SPCA should have been out in front of this story, saying many of the things they now are saying but which are now getting lost in the larger, messier story.
  • The main message that is getting lost is that this kind of thing can happen to anyone, even the CEO of an SPCA, and that it can be prevented. Indeed, the Richmond SPCA said, “If this can happen to a woman who has dedicated her professional life to saving animal lives, this can happen to anyone, and that is why it is so important for this tragedy to serve as a learning moment.” Great message. Awful timing.
  • The Richmond SPCA clearly wished to keep the incident under wraps and then blamed the news media when it became public: “We would prefer that the Starrs be allowed to grieve privately, but, since the local news media has not made that possible, we wanted to make you aware of what occurred.” Private grieving time is fine, but that could have been requested during a statement the day of the incident or the day after at the latest. If there wasn’t the stench of a cover-up, the request for privacy might have been more readily honored.
  • There is a double standard lurking in the background of this story. As many commenters have noted, if this had happened to some other prominent Richmonder, Starr likely would have been among the first to advocate some sort of punishment for the pet owner. What sort of punishment would she recommend for herself?

These and many other questions should have been raised and answered by the Richmond SPCA’s leadership immediately after last week’s incident. Yes, the Starr family deserves some degree of privacy to mourn the death of Louie. However, Robin Starr is a prominent figure locally and well-known among animal-rights activists nationally. The need for public relations counsel in the wake of a personal tragedy is part of the price you pay for prominence.


10 Responses

  1. I stopped reading after I read about her dog. I just skimmed because I know you so well and I am livid. All of your points are correct, but what irks me is that people tried to protect her. We all know that can’t happen. It’s not realistic in today’s world, and this has been proven on a regular basis. Due to the Internet, there are no secrets. Thank you for bringing this to the forefront.

    • That’s an excellent point, Susan, and one we should add to the list of lessons. You can’t ignore an issue away. You can’t pretend it’s not there or choose not to “play the game,” especially when you are a leader and even more especially when the incident involves you personally.

  2. Your points about the PR miscues are right on. The SPCA has pushed and pleaded with local and national media for coverage of their positive community acts and education for animal rights and humane pet care. Now, when faced with negative coverage and harsh criticism, the group is retreating and even lashing out (as could be construed through their tweet). Sadly, a poor PR response during a crisis could cause a good organization with a solid track record a black eye that takes a long, long time to heal.

  3. we serve a God of second chances – just maybe she can now forgive Micheal Vick – sure she wants to keep her job and position – just like Micheal Vick did – so now just maybe she can forgive others as she wish others to forgive her and forget her misfortune.

  4. My question is how did a dog that size get placed into the back of her car without her knowing?

    From all press accounts her husband placed the dog into the car. Did he place the dog into the car before Robin got into the car? Or did he place the dog into the car when she was in the car?

    If Robin was in the car when her husband placed the dog in why was she unaware of him opening the door putting the dog in and closing the door?
    If on the other hand he placed the dog into the car before she got in how long was the dog in the car before Robin got in? Over nite?

    Her husband said “I just forgot . . . and didn’t think about it until I got this frantic phone call from Robin. I knew immediately what I had done,”

    My contention is that she knew her dog was in the car when she left the house but just forgot when she exited the car. It is just that simple. Instead of making her husband take the fall she should just own up to the mistake. She is not the first person to make that mistake. Nor will she be the last.


  5. Any attempt to compare this tragedy to the Mike Vick story is laughable.

    She didn’t even know her husband put the dog in the car. The dog was deaf, blind, and 16 years old.

    • I don’t believe there is much of a comparison between Michael Vick’s actions (knowingly engaging in a criminal enterprise) and this incident (a tragic mistake).

      The relevance to the Vick story, however, is that Mrs. Starr has been, understandably, a vocal critic of Vick and of anyone else involved in incidents in which animals were harmed. Now she finds herself involved in an uncomfortable and embarrassing situation in which an animal was harmed, but she (or the RSPCA) ask for privacy and forgiveness by the public.

      My primary point is that activist leaders like Mrs. Starr who establish themselves as prominent spokespeople run the risk of falling hard when things go wrong. She has sought the spotlight and the bully pulpit for her organization’s cause, but the RSPCA naively tries to cover up this incident and expects privacy for her when her own actions are called into question.

      The public relations/communication impact of this tragedy either was not at all considered when it happened or was considered and ignored. Either way, the organization mishandled it and now the RSPCA has a bigger mess on their hands.

    • How do you know that she did not know the dog was in the car?

      If her husband put the dog in the car and the dog is blind then he must have either
      1: picked up the dog (dog is blind and can’t see how to get into the car)
      2: opened the car door
      3; placed the dog on back seat ( and not on the floor boards because of the dust and dirt typically located on the floor )
      4: closed the car door
      all while his wife sat in the front seat unaware of him opening ands closing the door.
      he must have:
      1 Picked up the dog (dog is blind)
      2 opened the car door
      3 placed the dog on the back seat ( on the side opposite the driver)
      4 closed the door
      He then went back into the house and never mentioned to his wife of his good deed. And she walked to her car never looking into the back seat , got into her car , drove to work never once glancing at the back seat, and exited her car without glancing at the back seat.

      Do you have children? Because if you do you know that a small child is normally placed on the back seat opposite the driver so the driver (mom) can turn and see their child. That is where the dog would/should have been placed by Robin’s husband. Not on the floor boards, and not directly behind the driver.

      Just my thoughts

      • James, the focus of my comments is on the communication/public relations aspects of this incident, but your comment prompts a thought in that regard. We only have the Starrs’ version of what happened and that is likely to be the only information we’ll get since it seems unlikely that any charges will be brought, so no criminal investigation will occur.

        However, in crises like this that involve prominent leaders, it’s important to communicate what happened as soon as possible. That did not occur in this case. A week passed before the SPCA communicated the only version of this story that we have. It might have been wise, from a public relations perspective, for Mrs. Starr to request some sort of investigation or inquiry — perhaps by the RSPCA board or maybe even local animal control authorities — to add credibility to her account of the events.

        Again, the RSPCA missed many opportunities to manage this crisis and to apply sound public relations principles to it. What might have been a one-day story is turning into a days-long story for the RSPCA. The impact on community goodwill and even financial support remains to be seen.

  6. James is spot on but unfortunately we only have her side of this story. However, the concern over a public relations / communication problem is only important to those who support the rock throwers. This was not important when the shoes were on others feet. Susan should stay in the spotlight – she makes the bucks but she didn’t want Micheal Vick to be able to make his money because of his horrific actions but it is okay for her. She kept a dog alive / around for 16 years as afflicted as death and blind and ultimtately the dog parched in the sun to his death. Sounds like she and her husband are dog criminals and since he placed the afflicted dog in her vehicle whether she knew it or not and I have my doubts, I believe she simply forgot the dog was out in the car. This is why I am grateful there is a God who sees all and knows all. Never dig a hole for others without digging one for yourself – a fact of life. Do the right thing Susan and tell the truth.

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