Considering Animals in Public Relations Research
People generally recognize that global warming, animal abuse and the sixth mass extinction are serious problems. They also recognize that the human species is largely responsible for these problems. Yet there has been no drastic change, and no major commitment to address these problems, either by individuals or by governments. An example of this is that, even though people are sensitive to the abuse and killing of animals, they still eat them. Several determinants slow down or prevent real change, one of which is the communication of industries that have a stake in animal exploitation.
Public relations covers all communications between an organization and the public that are intended to inform about the organization’s activities and to promote a positive image of it. This paper is about critical public relations studies, a field that investigates how public relations maintains and strengthens the power and domination of certain groups, including by gaining public consent for the activities of those groups. The aim of the discipline is not simply to investigate public relations, but also (and more importantly) to enable human and social emancipation.
According to the authors of this review, however, emancipation is impossible if humans continue to be considered as the center of everything that is important, and that the effects of their actions on the environment and animals continue to matter so little. Critical public relations research needs a paradigm shift, and here the authors propose to adopt what they call “the animal standpoint.”
Animal standpoint comes from critical animal studies, a field that focuses on the ethics of human-animal relations. Taking this point of view requires us to stop seeing animals as our opposites, to recognize that they have played a fundamental role in human history, and to consider that human domination over animals and the environment supports human domination over other human groups.
Adopting the animal standpoint would allow for a better understanding of the structures of power and domination in our societies. The ways in which some groups can be favored at the expense of others share common roots. For example, there are similarities and connections between white supremacy and human supremacy. When we understand one, we understand the other better. To achieve a world without domination and violence — which is the goal of critical public relations studies — it’s essential to consider the treatment of humans towards animals. To help adopt this view, the authors illustrate several ways in which it can be integrated in the three themes of critical public relations studies: public relations ethics, discourse, and political economy.
Animal standpoint and animal ethics could be linked to important values in the code of ethics of the Public Relations Society of America. For example, honesty, by properly informing the public of the animal rights debate, fairness, by applying it to everyone, or public interest, by considering the link between human and animal interests. The authors also emphasize the importance of listening to animal and environmental associations, as their voices are often not heard or marginalized. One way to help them would be to focus on the effectiveness of their communications by including ethical consideration.
An important element in the objectification of animals in language and discourse, often used negatively by the industries that exploit them. This language perpetuates the exploitation of animals, but also the domination of human groups. Alternative discourses should be supported, including those of animal rights movements. Moreover, studies could highlight and deconstruct the way in which industries, through public relations, normalize animal exploitation while hiding their financial interests. Finally, the contradiction and irony of exploitative industries adopting animal welfare discourse could be used to force those industries to adapt to their own rhetoric.
For political economy, research on interest groups such as lobby groups and think tanks could reveal how they influence the media, policy makers, and public opinion to support the exploitation of animals and the planet. Understanding how those groups normalize their discourse and present cherry-picked scientific data to serve their interests would help to challenge such practices, and decrease the power of those groups in our societies.
At the end of the review, the authors point out a particularly important piece of information: some companies that make their money on the abuse and death of millions of animals can still be perceived as the most empathetic companies by the public, because of their communications strategies. Even worse, some of those companies are able to pass off animal exploitation as species conservation, and pass themselves off as positive actors in our society.
It is important for researchers in critical public relations studies to incorporate the animal standpoint into their research. This will not only help animals, but also humans, because systems of domination and the discourses that underlie them share common roots. In doing so, the authors of this review agree that research will more easily fulfill its emancipatory role. For animal rights advocates, and citizens more generally, it’s of great importance that we become aware of the elements of communications that can influence our beliefs and behaviors, which will allow us to analyze media messages and be less immediately receptive to them, but also to incorporate critique into our analysis.