Interview with AAVS President Sue Leary
The following interview was conducted by HRC’s Anthony Bellotti on July 20th, 2010
Please provide an example of how you are currently integrating research into your campaigns/programs.
AAVS’s education department, Animalearn, in partnership with a university-based team, has been involved in conducting focus groups with teachers, in order to evaluate and address the barriers to using dissection alternatives in K-12 science classrooms. The results have not been compiled into a report yet but we are already using the feedback to develop our plans for services for educators. In addition, Animalearn, as part of a coalition effort, is surveying teachers about humane education to determine awareness and interest, and to benchmark key points. That will help us move forward with marketing and distribution of the Humane Education Curriculum that we use, Next of Kin.
Please provide an example on how research changed one of your campaigns. Did it serve as a turning point?
Actually, with HRC’s help, a coalition that AAVS chairs conducted a brief survey on attitudes and understanding of cosmetic testing on animals in order to assess potential support for legislative action. While a clear majority opposed cosmetic testing on animals, we discovered some misunderstanding that indicated that a resource-intensive legislative effort may be premature. It caused us to instead focus our short-term efforts on building broad consumer and industry support for the Leaping Bunny brand, its meaning and integrity. In fact, that has been much more successful.
Tell us about your approach to research for message development.
Well, as with a lot of things, it has to do with those concentric circles. To generate the messages, we start in the center, calling on the experience of our staff to craft a few options. Allowing a little time to ‘percolate’ internally is important as we sort of hypothetically try them in different contexts and see how they sound. We also have to be aware if we might be creating confusion with anything else going on in the larger environment, e.g. messages coming from like-minded or opposition organizations.
We like to consult board members and volunteers as well. Then, it’s not unusual for one message to emerge as the one to beat and it’s hard to resist just moving ahead at that point because it feels so right. And in fact, we feel that trying messages out with different constituencies is a kind of testing/research as long as we measure the response objectively and use it to inform our work. The barriers to objectivity are singling out contributing factors and frankly, not weighting responses differently, i.e. overemphasizing the things that reinforce your preferences, or underemphasizing the things that conflict with your preferences.
In the rollout, the detail obtained in informal information gathering, such as at Animalearn’s exhibit tables at teacher conferences, can be invaluable. For example, we just re-designed our display for those events based in part on feedback received.
To more formally gauge message responses, we may use Google analytics to look at open rates of emails and online ads and of course we look at donation rates if we have contacted members for support. In fact, our most consistent feedback on messages and themes comes from members through their responses to our communications, including the AV Magazine, Activate newsletter and our monthly e-newsletter. For larger campaigns, we would involve external professional resources, such as HRC, to ensure the best analysis.
Then we extend successful messages to print ads and more public communications.
What would you say about the importance of research for the animal protection movement and whether or not it’s becoming more or less important?
This might be a good time to make clear that in discussing messaging, we’re not talking about changing fundamental principles here—there’s a base line of presenting an accurate portrayal of our position. In fact, one of the reasons we like our name, the American Anti-Vivisection Society, even though we know that it is a little dense for the average person, is that it makes clear that we have an unequivocal position.
But the payoff for getting the message right is increasing understanding of our issues, improving communications, and ultimately, fulfilling our mission. As a movement, we can engage in self-expression, which is great, but if we want to achieve meaningful, lasting change for animals, we will need to reach out to people who don’t have this top of mind. What I mean is, it’s hard when we have our heads in this 24/7 to put ourselves in the position of the person on the receiving end of the message. The only real way to know is to research that.
We are also competing for attention in a crowded marketplace of opinions and claims. Animal protection groups have found ways to get attention, but we need to move towards a more sophisticated understanding of how initial impressions translate over time. There’s so much at stake here that we have to do this right.
How do you incorporate opposition research into your campaigns?
Well, we certainly monitor the efforts of our opponents who champion the use of animals in experiments and their attempts to determine and influence public opinion. Generally, it is background for our work–valuable as another piece of information to reveal and anticipate their arguments. But our campaigns have not prompted the kind of opposition research that might be seen in other areas of animal protection since the outcomes are often decided not by public opinion but by opinion leaders and policy-makers. The good news is that when we do come across trusted information from opposition or mainstream research organizations, we have seen that there is a general pattern of increasing support for animals and that gives us confidence.