Rhino need better friends

Giving a cause publicity is always good, right? Wrong. Last week, the National Press Club announced that they were electing the rhino as their newsmaker of the year.

It was a PR disaster – not just for the NPC, but for rhinos too. It set conservation back and offered a salutary reminder of how those who support a cause can often be its worst enemy.

I was scrolling through Twitter when the announcement broke. This is a summary of reactions I picked up:

  • Huh? What drugs are they on? 2012 was the year of Marikana and Mangaung!
  • Clearly the lives of rhinos are more important than those of Africans.
  • This is more proof that the (white) media is totally out of touch.

“I love rhinos. Love, not like,” tweeted Zama Ndlovu, also known as @JoziGoddess, who is very influential on Twitter.  “The way this issue has been handled has been a huge giant step backwards for conservation.”

(This, by the way, is something many PR practitioners miss: that the opinions formed by individual journalists are shaped far more by what their peers think about an issue than by yet another press release. Ignore the conversation happening on Twitter at your peril.)

The outrage became a news story in its own right. In one fell swoop, the NPC killed its credibility and drew attention to its failings. The link between AON, the sponsor, and the anti-rhino poaching cause, did neither any favours; PR specialist Chris Vick tore into both in the Daily Maverick. Journalists were outraged that something called the “National Press Club” was issuing these kind of clunkers in their name.

The entire debacle was seen as emblematic of the divide between rich, white South Africa and black realities. Coincidently, Muzi Kuzwayo wrote in last weekend’s Business Times that “Environmental issues will never gain popular support until everyday animal lovers are seen to be unselfish lovers of humans first. So the rhino is doomed for two reasons – first, because of the behaviour of animal lovers that we see everyday, and because the “Save the Rhino Campaign” is nothing but a fad.”

I love rhinos and I care very deeply about wildlife and conservation. I’ve painted them http://www.sarahbrittenart.com/2012/08/a-new-rhino-to-help-keep-the-real-ones-in-safe-hands/ , helped raise funds for them and worked on campaign strategies for a rhino conservation cause. But rhino campaigners are in some ways a victim of their own success.  With so many fundraising campaigns (not all of them legitimate) creating so much awareness and achieving so much coverage, they’ve turned rhino poaching into the issue symbolic of the obsession of white South Africans with the welfare of animals rather than humans.

This isn’t true, but as Mail & Guardian Online editor Chris Roper noted: “In the crude dialectics of our country, you’re either for or against. From now on, those dudes with the red plastic rhino horns on their cars are marked as lacking in compassion, privileging animals over their fellow humans, and dramatically out of touch with the real issues of our country.”

The decision wasn’t just a PR mess for all concerned. It has the potential to be really damaging to the war against rhino poaching for two main reasons:

1. As long as conservation issues in general and rhino poaching in particular gets pigeonholed as a white, middle class concern, they will never gain the political traction they need for the issue to be prioritized at a national and international level.

2. It’s also harder now for members of the media to express public support for the rhino cause without facing an element of judgment by their peers. The NPC made rhinos embarrassing. This means less coverage, less sympathy and less likelihood of getting the message out.

For an organization full of PR people, the National Press Club was remarkably good  at achieving the opposite of what it had hoped for. Please, rhino campaigners: learn from this. Have a think about how you’re unwittingly positioning the cause.  You might be winning the fundraising battle, but you’re losing the war for relevance.

– By Sarah Britten