PETA’s Shock Tactics: Irresponsible Advocacy or Strategy and Positioning?-Part 2

31 July 2015, 0535 EDT

[As two fellow NGO researchers, Wendy and Maryam are going to collaborate on some posts to provide contrasting views on hot-button issues related to NGOs. Think of us as the Siskel and Ebert of NGOs – we definitely agree on certain things, but clearly not on others (and don’t ask who’s who). Our points of view will not always reflect what we personally think of an issue–we need drama and suspense!–but we will always provide food for thought.]

By now everyone is well aware of the recent tragic killing of Cecil the lion by Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer. Josh shared a post about this incident here on the Duck, as have countless others. One opinion from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’ (PETA), no stranger to controversial statement, has caught plenty of attention:

“If, as has been reported, this dentist and his guides lured Cecil out of the park with food so as to shoot him on private property, because shooting him in the park would have been illegal, he needs to be extradited, charged, and, preferably, hanged.”

Needless to say, calling for Palmer to be hanged has generated a public outcry of its own.  We weigh in here.


 Irresponsible Advocacy

PETA is a firebrand, their statement is not out of character for the type of militant activism they exercise and their other campaigns and advertisements have been shocking as well. As Wendy argues, being a provocateur is part of their brand, they raise awareness by making noise. They completely own their shock tactics as a deliberate organizational strategy:

“We will do extraordinary things to get the word out about animal cruelty because we have learned from experience that the media, sadly, do not consider the terrible facts about animal suffering alone interesting enough to cover. It is sometimes necessary to shake people up in order to initiate discussion, debate, questioning of the status quo, and, of course, action.”

As advocates, NGOs like PETA do not need to be fair, impartial or neutral; they advocate for a position or course of action that reflects or advances the interests of their members. They do, however, need to be responsible.

The question of INGO responsibility, which is deeply intertwined with INGO accountability is one that I have grappled with for years. In the global realm, answers to questions like–for what are INGO advocacy groups responsible and to whom are they accountable?–are complex. At the most basic level, PETA is responsible for meeting its mission and organizational objectives and it is answerable for its actions to a wide range of stakeholders including its members, staff, partner NGOs, peer NGOs and the general public. PETA’s members have the ability to hold them accountable by withholding donations and cancelling memberships to voice discontent or disapproval of their recent statement.

But, INGO accountability is much more complex than these types of simple unidirectional relationships, as my research and that of others has shown. As a member of a moral community that advocates for animal rights, PETA is also accountable to the ethical norms, rules and principles of that community. The INGO Accountability Charter–a global, cross-sectoral initiative of international NGOs–is one attempt to establish community standards for INGOs (PETA is not a signatory). It defines responsible advocacy as: “ensuring that our advocacy is consistent with our mission, grounded in our work, based on evidence and advances defined public interests.” Responsible advocacy is one way to ensure the legitimacy, credibility and effectiveness of advocacy campaigns.

The legitimacy and the credibility of the entire animal rights community is compromised when PETA violates basic ethical principles and indulges in rhetorical excesses. Calling for the death of a human being, no matter how wrong, immoral or corrupt that individual may be, is not ethical. PETA cannot claim its mission is the ethical treatment of animals, while inciting violence against a human being.

Does their action advance defined public interests? PETA could have used the tragic killing of Cecil the lion as a bully pulpit to advocate for legislation that bans the importation of exotic animals and animal products or for more stringent hunting regulations. Instead, it squandered the opportunity by creating another mini-scandal that is drawing  media attention and ink away from its mission (we recognize that we are guilty of this as well). While the advocacy market is segmented as Wendy says, the actions of one advocacy group impacts the ability of peer organizations to act. I fully expect a fall-out in the animal rights sector much like the one that followed the KONY 2012 campaign.

Shocking, yes. Irresponsible, yes. Effective, probably not.