Last month the local animal shelters teamed up with the local newspaper blog focused on dogs to change the image of Pit Bulls, because too many end up in the shelters and they take months instead of days to be adopted, thanks to horrible reputation management.
The paper hosted a contest for the positive stories about the best pit bulls. When loved and properly handled, they’re an amazing breed. From a PR perspective, the contest was brilliant. It showcased a number of positive stories, including highlighting the misuse and abuse of the dogs and their sweet dispositions in spite of abuse. But that’s only one step in the campaign to change an entire breed’s image.
You see, bad behavior is learned. Not every owner of Pit Bulls should be an owner; they’re irresponsible by not understanding the breed, or understanding them too well and misusing the dogs or abusing the animal. The problem for the dogs is they have to rely on someone else for their reputation management. For too long, their reputation has been governed by the unscrupulous, generating fear. Or media coverage of dog attacks on children or being used as a weapon to murder a neighbor. Bad publicity rarely worth it; better to be ignored. Because few viewers/readers remember that “news” is the unusual; they just hear more stories about pits and fear stays. Part of the issue is Pit Bulls are blamed for these attacks, but the veracity of checking whether the dog is really a pit bull isn’t always verified. Don’t send me hate mail about Pit Bulls. I know there are stories of dogs doing bad things. That is the fault of the owner, not the dog. And a disclaimer, I’ve never owned a Pit Bull. I have cats and they wouldn’t allow any dog in the house.
How do you change the reputation? Public relations strategies. From a crisis management perspective, pits need better media relations–getting reporters to interact with the dogs. They need more positive publicity, so events with the dogs in action could be useful. Or they need community relations to be seen as champions, such as going to work for the law enforcement or the military, even better going to work as therapy dogs for troubled teens. The message around Pit Bulls needs to mimic the change the U.S. military did from Vietnam vets to Iraq/Afghanistan vets. Understanding the trauma our veterans have endured as a result of doing what their country asked of them has improved resources (although certainly not sufficiently) and military protocols. Public reaction to war actions went from hating to soldiers to supporting the soldiers and properly laying the blame at the politicians instigating the wars. If a similar approach were used in messaging Pit Bulls (the level of training or abuse the dogs go through to become such aggressors), change could affect public perception. But it will take more than just a handful of owners, unless a public relations firm can take on their reputation. And even then, it will take time to change perception. The dogs are battling centuries of misuse, so it will take longer than a year long campaign to change their reputation.
What businesses can take away from this is to manage the positive reputation in the first place. If you reach the level of fear and loathing that Pit Bulls do, it will take extraordinary measures to recover your reputation. Don’t become a Pit Bull business.