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.