The Case of Social Media and PETA’s Polarizing Public Persona 

Why the social media efforts of PETA seem contradictory to the overall theme

PETA is an organization that you either love or hate. I personally have never agreed with their execution of their core mission as such (I do believe that cruelty to animals is very wrong), yet they are an organization that I cannot help but respect due to their devotion to cause. Their marketing awareness campaigns have run the gambit from absolutely absurd to completely naked to disgustingly real, yet carry the desired effect. They get people talking and they change minds. They also have predictable side effects, mostly in the form of press criticism and direct attacks on social media.

Their most recent campaign (revived from a 2008 campaign), linking autism to dairy products has ignited yet another backlash at the company. The mission is to stop people from drinking cows milk — or at least consider the cruelty of the source. In my opinion, these claims are a bit outlandish, but PETA Executive Vice President Tracy Reiman believes this is a serious issue.

“PETA’s website provides parents with the potentially valuable information that researchers have backed up many families’ findings that a dairy-free diet can help kids who have autism,” says Reiman. “Dumping dairy products—the consumption of which has also been found to contribute to asthma, constipation, recurrent ear infections, iron deficiency, anemia, and even cancer—is a healthy choice that the late Dr. Benjamin Spock recommended for all families, and it also spares mother cows the cruelty of being repeatedly impregnated and forced to produce milk for humans after their calves, who will endure the same fate, have been taken away from them. Cow’s milk might be the perfect food for baby cows, but it might also be making kids sick.”

PETA is so devoted to cause that they are viewed by the general media as showcasing the extreme to get a rise out of people. This has been the norm for years, but something within the organization is different. Perhaps they started thinking about delivery and how to really talk to people, or it is all part of the mind fuck. Regardless, on social media I’ve found interaction to be a contradiction to their standard; pleasant and conversational. So that makes me wonder about the people running social, and how their mission strategy appears to be contrary to their own organizations standard of generally perceived behavior.

Depending on the day, Helena Soh, PETA’s Social Media Manager, grabs an iced Americano with almond milk or Gingerberry Kombucha on her way to work. Like all employees on the communications team, she is a vegan. She handles most of the social interactions throughout the day. Noting that PETA as a brand and organization is very polarizing, I was curious as to when much of the marketing is dynamic and shocking, how does the social team translate this when connecting with the public?

“When we connect with the public, our main goal is to tap into emotions and make people feel something,” Soh told me via email. “People love animals. A lot of the time, it’s just a matter of showing people how they already feel about something that they just didn’t know was happening. I think PETA’s message works well on social media because of this. Our message is personal and emotional, and people can tell it’s coming from a very real place.”

So rather than attack as the organization seems to do in the media, the social team focuses on more of an emotional and logical response to the public. They simply point out the facts as they see them, and guide people to supporting material. It was this “kill it with kindness” approach that raised my eyebrow. The positive approach by the communications team is something that they strive to achieve every day.

“By responding positively, we hope to keep the conversation focused on the facts of the matter, remembering that every person can be turned around to see it from the animal’s perspective,” Soh continued. “Every interaction is an opportunity! Every day, we hear from at least a few would-be comedians who tweet at us to tell us that their ‘mink is dragging on the floor’ (to quote the Kanye West song). We could point out to people how unoriginal their joke is. Instead, we try to laugh along and point out -— without stepping on a soapbox — that if they’re interested in fur, they should watch our exposé of the China fur industry, narrated by Olivia Munn.”

Additionally, Soh and her team have to deal with jackholes like me all day as she runs one of the most controversial, oft discussed, reviled and cherished social media accounts in existence. While clearly they believe in their message, how do they stay positive and separate their own emotions when reacting on social media? Soh told me it is all about seeing every interaction as an opportunity.

“We see interactions on social media as opportunities. Everyone who works on PETA’s social media team is vegan, but we all ate meat in the past. We went vegan because we learned about how animals are treated on factory farms and after watching videos such as ‘Glass Walls.’ Whenever we post a video about how animals are raised and slaughtered for food (even our new animated video to be featured on Morrissey’s tour), people comment that they are going to go vegan. We love to share these comments with everyone on the social media team. They keep us motivated and excited to do more.”

Yet, social media is not an easy place to spread a message that needs more than 140 characters. That message can get muddled and confused. Sometimes, a picture is all that is needed to say what needs to be said. Consider the aforementioned autism and dairy milk campaign, then compare that to the picture of the baby cow and the heartfelt message in the tweet. They are both coming from PETA, yet one (the tweet) is more effective in my estimation at furthering their cause.

“Our main strategy is evocative, emotional messaging,” says PETA’s Communications Manager Heather Carlson. “We have essentially one second to grab people’s attention on social media, so we have to pull them in instantly. We spend a lot of time coming up with different ways to tell stories through photos, and we always make sure that the heart of the story is front and center.

On top of specific campaigns, PETA’s general message has reached millions of people through social media. For example, in April alone, we reached more than 95 million people through our Facebook posts and received more than 7.3 million video views on Facebook alone.”

PETA’s social media efforts have resulted in a few major victories for the organization. Recently a dozen major retailers banned the sale of angora after PETA’s investigation. Their social efforts also played a huge part in getting nearly every major airline to stop shipping monkeys to labs for experiments.

PETA has been at the forefront of activism campaigns such as the one surrounding the film Blackfish, taking SeaWorld to task for their treatment of Orca whales.

So why do we hold PETA in such high contempt? More so than an organization such as TRUTH, who also reveal the brutal truth about a product we ingest daily. It is all about delivery. Brands could take a lesson here, especially if they have a message to convey.

PETA as an organization is aggressive and in your face and deliver their message to you with a punch to the gut and a sneer at your inability to see their position. At least, this is how it comes across. Their campaigns are designed to extract a very emotional reaction from the crowd.

“PETA recognizes that there’s a lot of competition for consumers’ attention, so our campaigns must be creative and sometimes provocative in order to make sure that we grab people’s attention and get them thinking about the plight of animals who endure torture, isolation, terror, and violent deaths on factory and fur farms, in laboratories, in circuses, at amusement parks such as SeaWorld, and elsewhere,” Carlson noted. “PETA’s purpose is to stop animal suffering, and we use all available opportunities to reach millions of people with powerful messages in order to initiate discussion, debate, questioning of the status quo, and, of course, action.”

With the same goals in mind — to elicit an emotional response to the cruel treatment of animals — the communications team seems like a completely different PETA. If one knew nothing else about PETA save for their social interactions, one might embrace their ideals and missions with enthusiasm and a willingness to open the discussion instead of automatically holding them in sour regard. Yet, for the organization this type of in-your-face marketing is the only way to get people talking, otherwise, would we even pay them any mind at all?

According to Carlson, the mission of the communications team is quite clear. “We know we’re not going to convince everyone who disagrees with PETA that we’re right and they’re wrong with just a tweet, so our goal is at least to plant a seed that maybe we’ve got a good point after all. If we get people to question the way that they think about how animals are treated, we’re happy.”