When animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals launched a worldwide boycott of Australian wool, it also threatened U.S. retailers, including Abercrombie & Fitch and J. Crew, with campaigns such as “Abercruelty & Fitch” and “J. Cruel.” Those retailers quickly capitulated to PETA’s demands and removed all Australian wool products from their stores.
Targeting retailers and their customers, PETA’s boycott campaign consisted of misinformation and emotional tactics, including protests at retailers’ stores, billboards in major cities attacking retailers and the Australian wool industry as well as websites designed to generate thousands of letters, e-mails and phone calls trying to force retailers to stop selling Australian wool.
PETA objected to the Australian wool industry’s practice of “mulesing,” in which a small area of skin is removed from the breech area of Australian merino sheep to prevent Flystrike—a disease caused by feeding maggots burrowing into and devouring the flesh of the sheep, which is often fatal.
With more than $6 billion in worldwide sales at stake, the Australian wool and sheep industry engaged the Atlanta office of GolinHarris to launch an aggressive counter campaign to educate U.S. retailers about the Australian wool industry’s humane husbandry practices and keep them from joining or supporting PETA’s boycott.
To combat PETA’s tactics, the Australian wool industry conducted research by independent animal scientists that refuted PETA claims. GolinHarris conducted interviews with U.S. retailers to assess their awareness of the mulesing issue and their attitudes towards the Australian wool industry. The firm also conducted media audits to assess U.S. consumer awareness and exposure to PETA’s boycott campaign.
Several pieces of research were instrumental in developing effective strategies and messaging for educating retailers and combating PETA’s campaign of misinformation. First came the MacKinnon Project, research from animal scientists and agriculture experts, which showed three million sheep a year could die from flystrike if mulesing was banned. That evidence were instrumental in developing messages to support AWI’s position
At the same time, contact with U.S. retailers showed us that attitudes were not predetermined against Australian wool. The PR team confirmed that U.S. retailers knew very little about Australian wool production practices and would be open to credible science-based information. Meanwhile, media audits designed to assess consumer awareness of mulesing and PETA’s campaign showed fewer than 5 percent of consumers were aware of either PETA’s campaign or the practice of mulesing.
The goal of the public relations effort was to stop the PETA boycott dead in its tracks. To achieve that goal, the PR team set several objectives: to keep the news of PETA’s campaign against the Australian wool industry within the retail trade community and not their customers so that retail sales would not decline; to convince the top 25 to 30 U.S. apparel retailers to oppose the boycott and support the Australian wool industry and their products; to engage a top retailer association to protect individual retailers from being targeted by PETA; to organize forums to communicate to retailers the science-based research and credible/authoritative scientific and governmental third-party support that Australian wool producers have for their wool production practices; and to communicate the commitment that the Australian wool industry has in making further improvements in their animal husbandry practices.
The effort would use third-party experts to verify/support Australian wool industry practices; rely on personal, direct contact with major U.S. retailers in the form of meetings and forums to convey the facts about the Australian wool industry; and provide support to retailers who were targeted by PETA.
Working with the Australian wool industry and public relations firm Wilkinson Media in Sydney, Australia, GolinHarris launched an aggressive and coordinated defense of the Australian wool industry in the United States. The Australian wool industry created a task force and made personal visits to major U.S. retailers. Credible third-party organizations and experts were enlisted to support the industry and refute activists’ misinformation. A website (www.woolisbest.com) provided factual and educational information on mulesing. And an innovative industry agreement (“Declaration of Commitments”) was developed between the Australian wool industry and apparel retailers through the National Retail Federation.
On the media relations front, the PR team provided positive key messages, research information and news releases to media; coordinated Australian wool spokespeople for U.S. media reporting on the Australian wool industry; and contacted U.S. media to provide them with background materials and video on the Australian wool industry for positive articles outlining the issue.
The PR team also contacted U.S. retailers to provide support, information and media assistance in relation to Australian wool issues as they developed and to assist retailers with any media inquiries or store-level protest. It created newsletters and bulletins updating retailers on issues regarding the Australian wool industry; counseled and advised AWI and retailers on strategies to blunt PETA tactics and other crises, protests and media stunts orchestrated by PETA or other activist groups; and scheduled meetings and developed presentations with the Australian Wool Taskforce to help initiate a positive dialogue with U.S. retailers demonstrating the Australian wool industry commitment.
Retailer communication toolkits were developed and sent to U.S. retailers of Australian wool products, including a cover letter, wool industry fact sheets, R&D fact sheets and milestones, sheep welfare brochure and CD, retailer Q&A document and website address.
GolinHarris also established media monitoring team to monitor major U.S. news services and websites (with any relevant PETA and Australian wool industry coverage in the U.S.) on a daily basis.
The campaign was successful in preventing U.S. retailers of Australian wool products from joining a worldwide boycott.
Four national and five regional forums were held to educate and convince U.S. retailers of the Australian wool industry’s commitment to animal welfare.
Three major retail associations (including the National Retail Federation, The National NeedleArts Association and the National Textile Association) pledged support and convinced their members to support the Australian wool industry
Publicity surrounding PETA’s campaign against the Australian wool industry was largely limited to the retail community. Awareness on the part of U.S. consumers did not affect retail sales
More than 75 U.S. retailers pledged support for the Australian wool industry and have refused to join PETA’s boycott of Australian wool products. More than 80 percent of U.S. apparel retailers are signatories or support a “Declaration of Agreements” created for retailers.