BtC4A: A Note on Being the Change

It’s that time again!

Each quarter, Blog the Change for Animals participants write about a variety of worthy causes and how even small actions by the rest of us can actually affect positive change for companion animals.  Puppy mill awareness and pet store sales. Dog auctions.  Responsible spaying and neutering.  Fostering and volunteering at rescue agencies.  Heightened awareness of pet over-population and adoptable animals.  Just click for the blog hop list to check them out.

But I want to take a moment this time to put the changes aside and focus on the communications made about those changes – a frequent pet peeve of mine (no pun intended).

Because even though your message may be very important and passionate, how it is received is what causes not only the general public but also corporate executives and government officials to act.

I mean, we all know that pets with better photos on rescue webstes get adopted faster – that very concept should be expanded to the whole of animal advocacy.

Basically, what I’m saying is that the delivery is just as important as the message itself.

And this sentiment has two parts as I see it: technical and rational.

The Technical

This is most simple, if you ask me, but oh-so-frequently disregarded.  What I’m calling the technical is how you frame your message – literally.  I’m talking proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation and easy to navigate websites.

This kind of neglect irks me regularly when Facebook friends frequently show off how the public school system failed them and their inability to distinguish between your and you’re.  For some reason, sloppy sentence structure and punctuation abuse seem almost more rampant with the voices of animal causes.

Sure, we all can make mistakes and the occasional type-o – I get that.  Should an inadvertent error appear in my post here, the irony will not be lost on me.  And given most of the audience of Blog the Change is other bloggers who write on a regular basis, I may even just be ineffectually preaching to the choir here.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t still regularly come across websites, blog posts, Facebook groups, and online petitions advocating for animal welfare that have seemingly thrown concerns for the English language out the window.

And that kind of thing can make it hard to respect the author of the message.  In some cases, it even makes it difficult to read and understand the message.  Sure, you may have passion on your side, and may even be completely legitimized in your argument, but I hesitate to share or jump on board a poorly packaged cause.  This is even more the case when trying to appeal for legislative changes with your local government, since no politician will hitch his wagon to a sloppy campaign.

Now, I’m not saying that you need to rush off and complete a Masters degree in English.  You don’t even need to master “whom” or how to use a semicolon.  But I am saying proper capitalization goes a long way.  And for the love of all things furry, learn to restrain yourself when it comes to exclamation or question marks and ellipses.  Heck, these days spell-check does most of the work for you, so there’s really no excuse anymore.

An example of terrible web design from the list. I don't know about you, but I'm not buying what they're selling.

How you deliver the words is also more important.  Comic Sans font in sparkly yellow atop a camouflage background?  You’re begging not to be taken seriously.  Haven’t updated your website since 1998?  Have a 25 minute Flash intro with no ‘skip this’ option?  Just like any other organization, some web design common sense and logical, user-friendly layout should be priorities, especially given the web is the hub of so many causes.  I won’t pick on anyone in particular, but let’s just say that if your website at all resembles any of the ones on this list, you have a problem.

Basically, think of your writing as scenery on a drive, and the words and punctuation are the road that you travel to see it.  The drive is a lot smoother – and you can take in the scenery much better – on a nicely paved, error-free highway.  On the other hand, if you’re travelling on gravel with potholes and washboard, your attention is divided trying to navigate the bumpy road and you aren’t able to focus as well on the sights.   You want the reader’s drive to be easy.  (Thanks to an English prof long ago for this analogy that clearly stuck with me all these years.)

The Rational

This PETA ad, Everyday Dogs, sure stirs up some controversy and emotion, doesn’t it?

It’s no shock to see PETA try to push buttons, is it?  It’s kind of their ‘thing’.

But just because it works for them doesn’t mean that is the right strategy for your local, grassroots campaign.

“Activist” is a dirty word in politics and the media, and your opponents are going to do their best to label you as a crazy radical who shouldn’t be taken seriously.  Trust me – this “tofu-eating dolphin marry-er” knows from personal experience with ASLC.

Expect your message to be taken out of context, misinterpreted, and hyperbolized.

Starting with shock value can result in the focus being zeroed in to that alone and the rational argument and facts behind you may be ignored entirely.  If your goal is to educate ‘Joe Public’ on a certain issue or petition government for legislative change, like I’ve said, you and your cause need to be taken seriously.

Do positive, feel-good ads risk being boring by comparison? I doubt this particular PETA ad sparked the usual firestorm.

Pictures of the horrors of puppy mills, for example, may draw tears and spark outrage, and may even result in important media coverage – and I’m not saying they should necessarily be hidden away entirely – but I don’t think your campaign should rely on them.

Think, for example, of the ingenious I Hate Balls campaign that appeals to humour in a hilarious viral video that makes the point just as well as, if not better than, depressing photos to the tune of Sarah McLachlan.  Better, really, if you consider that I will actually watch and share the entire I Hate Balls video.

Too much in-your-face material, too much anger, slander, guilt, preaching, or reactionary rants can really scare off your intended audience.  You do need a well-presented rational argument at the heart of your issues to garner long-term support and a serious audience willing to take action on your behalf.

The Bottom Line

Animal causes are hot topics and speak to issues very close to home for many people, but they are rarely ‘sexy’ issues in the eyes of politicians that lead to quick legislative action.  Everyone knows advocates are passionate, but they are also intelligent, informed, and educated – I just wish those qualities were just as obvious.  There’s no point in creating bigger hurdles for ourselves by not packaging the messages as neatly as we could.