Working in animal welfare often means making the best of a bad situation. There is a level of acceptance that unfortunate circumstances exist. The aim is to nudge the outcome to be more positive by minimising or eliminating harms. I value my ability to view issues from many points of view. Sometimes I admire people who surpass what the majority feels is ethical, appropriate behaviour – not least because it gets an issue on the agenda. In campaigning, can we change the world with a bit more action now, apologising later?
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is an animal rights group who launched a campaign in 2003 entitled ‘Holocaust on your Plate’. They frame their campaign messages (below) by comparing modern agricultural practices and eating meat with the Holocaust. My first reaction was wide eyes and raised eyebrows. Jewish rights groups reacted in anger at such a comparison. An apology (argued a non-apology) came in 2005 by PETA’s president Ingrid Newkirk.
I believe this campaign offers an opportunity to consider ethics and professionalism in campaigning.
- “Uncompromising Stands on Animal Rights” sets PETA apart
- They are controversial; true to their mission for stopping animal abuse worldwide
- Clear in their view that animals are to eat, wear, experiment on, use for entertainment, abuse or exploit
- Report what they believe to be milestones and victories
The above is indicative that PETA will take the steps they feel necessary, regardless of any harm caused. Other organisations factor in harm that can be caused by their actions and set their professional code accordingly. Currently, there is not a code for campaign communicators in the not-for-profit sector, which may stem from the fact this is an emerging (O’Brien, 2015) rather than established profession.
So – did PETA do something wrong in their comparison of two different sentient beings?
According to their own values, no. According to the values of others, yes.
What would happen if PETA had a clear code of conduct to follow?
Codes of Conduct
Codes of conduct do exist in other professions, such as Public Relations and Research. In research they are also well-defined in-practice. Some non-government organisations acknowledge policies are needed and take responsibility to create guidance; for example, Water Aid’s Ethical Image Policy.
If animal rights campaigners did have a stronger code of conduct to follow, as part of the existing profession of ‘knowledge workers’ (Trench and Yeomans, p218), this may compromise PETA’s ‘deontological approach’ (Fawkes, 2013, p220) and ability to contribute to society:
- Give animals a voice at opportune moments. Could they have such a strong presence if banned from key timings to campaign, such as the Holocaust remembrance?
- Be original. Could they make such shocking comparisons?
- Make animal rights issues so visible. Would they have gotten as much in-depth media coverage on topics that might be ignored or dismissed (Bronstein, 2006, p3) if debate was not stimulated?
What do you think – was acting now and ‘apologising’ later a worthwhile tactic by PETA?
Working in animal welfare, I do not align with all of PETA’s views. However, what cannot be ignored is that they put the true life and experiences of some animals in the public domain. I put some value in that.
Bronstein, C. (2006). Responsible Advocacy for Nonprofit Organisations. In: Fitzpatrick, K., Bronstein, C. Ethics in Public Relations: Responsible Advocacy. California: Sage Publications, Ch 5.
Fawkes, J. (2013). Public Relations Professionalism and Ethics. In: Trench, R., Yoemans, L. Exploring Public Relations (3rd ed). Cambridge: Pearson Publishing.
O’Brien, M. (2015). Movements for Change. Communication Director. Available from: http://www.communication-director.com/issues/anticipation-and-disruption/movements-change-0#.WHKemEuRJuY [Accessed 8 January 2017].
This blog is part of my MA in Media, Campaigns and Social Change with the University of Westminster.