Marketing ‘vermin’: Strategies to combat a plague-ridden reputation

sellings rats
Rats.

Not the easiest animal to convince people make good pets, but ones which I’ve found in the four or so years of owning them to be the cheekiest, most playful and surprisingly easiest small pet you could own.

A quick list of their benefits can include:

  1. Unlike Hamsters, Degus and Chinchillas, they’re not nocturnal and so will be awake when you are.
  2. Personality-wise they are a cross between a dog (playful, attentive, loyal) and a cat (wants cuddles/to be stroked, relaxed)
  3. Each rat has their own individual personality that can be developed depending on how you respond/act with them.
  4. Once you’ve gained their trust, they will consistently want your attention/to play/be stroked.
  5. They are very food-orientated as a species. No pet meets ‘the way to your heart is through your stomach’ mantra more than a rat.
  6. They are as clean as cats, especially if you litter-train them.
  7. They eat (or will at least try) pretty much anything (though high fat diet or citrus foods will have negative health effects).
  8. They grind their teeth together when happy (bruxing) and (when really happy/relaxed) they boggle their eyes.
  9. They’re both friendly and independent so bought in pairs or a trio, they will play with themselves when you’re doing other things.
  10. They are ridiculously intelligent. Check out the video below and see some of the many tricks you can teach them.

But, admitting to owning rats as pets does come with some interesting (and occasionally offensive) stereotypes – mainly born out of fear or even sheer ignorance.

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  • Assuming my home is filthy because of their presence?
  • Assuming they carry diseases like rabies and the plague (yes, as in the bubonic plague…which was carried by fleas.. not rats..)
  • I even had one classmate warn me that they could escape and attack me and my partner…

Don’t get me wrong, I can semi-understand why some people might find the tails off-putting, or why some may not like the threat of being bitten; but then saying that, you have a threat of being bitten by any pet if you hurt/upset it enough and the tails… well they’re easy to get used to after a while.

My original and aptly-named ‘Rat Pack’ consisted of five boys which I semi-rescued from a woman living in Sheffield (luckily for me she agreed to deliver them on the understanding that I’d pay petrol costs). Ranging in age and temperament from about 6 months and almost feral (never been handled) to approximately a year and a half year old love-bug, they quickly stole my heart, particularly after one of them suffered a stroke/severe fall shortly after arriving and so spent three days cuddled in my pocket so I could feed him medicine mixed in yoghurt every two hours.

The downside to caring for rats (or any rodent) however, is their short lifespan which averages at about 2-3 years, so my original rat pack are now all what is known as ‘over the rainbow bridge’ ie) rattie heaven.

Houdini (left) and Pebble. My current babies.

Houdini (left) and Pebble. My current babies.

I do however currently have a very licky, very attention-seeking, very food-orientated pair of boys whose faces I couldn’t resist when visiting Pets at Home last November.

*Saying that, I really do not recommend purchasing any small animal from a Pet store, particularly rats, due to the high risk of health or temperament issues that come from those environments – many pet store rats are bred and treated as snake food. Seriously, if you’re a novice or don’t want to risk having to trust train them, buy from trusted breeders; you’ll be saving yourself a lot of stress and hassle.

Very quickly, Houdini and Pebble came home to live – Pebble, named for the colour of his coat and the way he often sleeps (curled up in a ball as if about to do a forward roll), and Houdini who came by his name for the ridiculous speed in which he managed to escape not one but three of the cases I was expected to carry him home in.

Winning over the hearts of those who are afraid or flat-out dislike rats however, is not an easy task. Historically they’ve been a species cursed with a bad reputation, and counteracting the ‘plague-ridden, aggressive, you-will-die’ stereotype is often a task that meets a lot of resistance. People are comfortable in their own world view and questioning that/showing them that a belief/fear that many have held since childhood is false, isn’t always appreciated unless approached with care.

There are five key strategies that I have tried to take in building and defending ratty reputations. These are:

1. Be authoritative

Communicating strongly and knowledgeably goes a long way to making everyone else believe you understand what you’re talking about and that you’re the leader and authority in your area. Conveying your message with powerful, emotive words as well as with conviction will make you more believable and will make your audience more receptive to your message.

2. Be specific

Your message needs to be clear and easily conveyed. In this case, that’s pretty easy given the simplicity of both the subject and the stance ie) ‘Rat’s are awesome and everyone should love them!’, but in most cases, issues and brands can have more complex, more multi-layered connotations and thus need focused and specific communications to be believed by the recipient audience. It’s no good telling someone how great rats are if you can’t explain to the person why you like them and what makes them a good pet.

3. Be consistent

Being consistent when showing pictures and videos that contest the ‘ewwww gross’ mentality reinforces the message and shows people how loving and playful rats truly are without overcomplicating or confusing the issue.

4. Be honest

Every pet (and brand for that matter) has annoying quirks and habits. Being honest about them (they chew anything rubbery or wooden, and will use your clothes to make nests given half the chance) and admitting the downsides (they can smell if not cleaned regularly) increases your credibility and means that when you talk about the good things, you’re more likely to be believed. Integrity goes a long way after all.

5. Be relentless

Commit yourself to getting the positive message out there. People are inundated with a myriad of messages each day and when it comes to rats – lets be honest – the vast majority are not going to be positive ones. It’s not only critical therefore that you try to stand out amongst the static but equally that you are not forgotten. Follow up with people you’ve had past discussions with to reinforce not only your message but also the relationships you are building.

Overall, I’ve had a lot of success.

I mean it’s hard for people to retain the belief in the evil/disgusting/diseased stereotype when they are faced with the grabby-handed puppy eyes of two very adorable fluffballs.

There are of course going to be a small percentage of people whose opinions will be immovably negative. The RepTrak Alignment Monitor, developed by Cees van Riel for The Reputation Institute, measure employee alignment and contribution to the objectives and performance of an organisation. It suggests that although 10% of employees will automatically respond positively to change and 70% respond given adequate persuasion, 20% will remain consistently negative in their response.

The key I think is making sure to reinforce the positive messages I’m promoting to the 80% majority whilst never giving up on winning over that remaining stubborn 20% to my way of thinking – after all, their stubbornness gives me plenty of opportunities for rodent evangelism on a personal one-on-one basis.

At your own risk

Just rediscovered this feature I wrote for Communicate Magazine November 2013 issue on the growing importance of Corporate Affairs Directors (and of Corporate Communications in general). I still think it’s appropriate, and it’s still one of my favourite published articles to date.

More use than smoke signals

The 2007 financial crisis caused society’s confidence in business to hit an all time low. Since then, companies have been under increased public scrutiny from many angles. This scrutiny has only been exacerbated by the advent of web 2.0 and the public forums and social media channels it supports.

The growing influence of the corporate affairs function in FSTE 100 companies The growing influence of the corporate affairs function in FSTE 100 companies

The influence of corporate affairs directors however is thought to have grown steadily over the past number of years. However, it has become more and more important for the reputational dimension of strategic and operational decisions to be considered at an early stage.

It was with this in mind, that a study was conducted by executive search consultants, Spencer Stuart. Jonathan Harper, who leads the consultancy’s consumer practice in Europe and partner in the consultancy, says “We thought it would be useful for us to find out and…

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“Everyone communicates”: The growing role of corporate communications and stakeholder relations

It is said that a business’ reputation is all that stands between its profit and its ruin, and in the past decade, I believe that this has never been more true. Since the advent and growth of Web2.0, organisations have come under increasing levels of scrutiny from both the general public and their competitors, who would no doubt seize upon and exploit any negative press so as to advance their own corporate strategy.

According to Dahlen, “Everything and everyone communicates” (2010), with advances in technology meaning that we all now have the ability to communicate and share our opinions publicly. Social media is not only a key example of this (through websites such as Facebook, Twitter and WordPress), but in particular, has become a medium through which we can visibly see the ways we shape the content of our online personas to reflect varying aspects of our identities. In Communications, be it the marketing, advertising or public relations industry, this is an even more apparent phenomenon as we increasingly tailor our words towards different groups, altering what we say on behalf of our clients’ brands and the ways in which we say it depending on our relationship with (and knowledge of) the recipients. This can be a double-edged challenge for businesses who are expected to not only utilise digital platforms as an outlet for external communications, but also to directly communicate and have conversations with their stakeholders, particularly their customers.

In seeing the vast opportunities opened by online platforms and social media, businesses are now capitalising on and engaging more and more with social media – a recent survey found 79% have used or planned to use social media. However a 2013 study by Fishburn Hedges and Jigsaw Research exploring the changing nature of corporate narratives, found that businesses’ self-portrayals were still not sufficiently engaging to their audiences, with 20% of the general public surveyed stating that they don’t believe brand ‘stories’ at all and 52% claiming to not believe brand stories if they are conveyed through advertising and communications.

From corporate social responsibility to crisis management, effective communications between companies and their stakeholders is becoming an increasingly vital element for a successful business practice. The CIPR defines public relations as being “about reputation – the result of what you do, what you say and what others say about you. Public relations is the discipline which looks after reputation, with the aim of earning understanding and support and influencing opinion and behaviour. It is the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its public.”

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This is corroborated by Simon Matthews, Chief Executive of Fishburn Hedges, who said: “Audiences can see right through business messages that don’t correlate with corporate behaviour. Corporate communications has an opportunity to help unify different organisational voices and bridge the gap between them to be a force for cultural good within the business.”

It’s no longer enough to shout about how amazing you are on social media, the public (particularly young people) are becoming increasingly savvy in spotting companies whose behaviour doesn’t live up to its advertising. McDonald’s for example, is currently spiralling into a long-predicted reputational crisis where its recurrent US labour law violations and unappetising news reports on food content and quality has led to significantly sagging sales. To quote Jim Hightower, “You know your business has what image consultants call “quality perception issues” when you have to launch a PR initiative that publicly addresses such questions as: “Does McDonald’s beef contain worms?”

McDonald’s is paying the price for its lack of corporate and communicational consistency, and is left on the defensive in trying to mitigate some of the negative publicity it now faces. If they had instead taken a proactive approach in identifying and approaching their stakeholders, they would have been able to categorise them based on either Mendelow’s Power and Influence Matrix or Mitchell, Agle and Wood’s Salience Model, and establish, not only their motivations and areas of concern, but also the best ways in which to manage or engage. Instead the brand is left scrambling to distract from its poor media coverage through a new ad campaign centred on linking its Golden Arches to the healing power of ‘love’.

Without changing to more fair and equal corporate practices though, I’m hesitant in thinking that anyone will be Lovin’ this brand’s attempts to regain it’s reputation.

Embedded Journalists: “Propaganda Merchants”, or providers of a much-needed human perspective?

Since its use during the 2003 media coverage of the Iraq War, ‘Embedded Journalism’ has become a form now easily recognisable to the general public. In contrast to being an independent or affiliated “war correspondent” (whose role is to deliberately go to the most conflict-ridden areas and provide written or photographic accounts of the events there), an “embedded” journalists instead attach themselves to, and thus travel with, a unit of the armed forces, recording and reporting on the activity of the soldiers in question as well as their own experiences of living amongst them.

This position could be argued as being quite a controversial practice due to widespread criticism in some circles by those who claim that embedded journalists’ main purpose is to act as a part of a generalised propaganda campaign, or that it is only being utilised in an effort to control the portrayal of the events of said conflict. Journalist, Gay Talese, for example; summarised this opinion best, stating “Those correspondents who drive around in tanks and armoured personnel carriers, who are spoon-fed what the military gives them and become mascots for the military”. I intend to explore how far his statement might be true, in addition to analysing the benefits of ‘embedding’ with the intent of establishing the true purpose and effectiveness of journalists acting in this role.

The new position for some journalists to become embedded in a military unit, can be explained in a 2003 report by the US Department of Defence which states that; “Commanders and Public Affairs Officers must work together to balance the need for media access and the need for operational security” due to their belief that, “the media coverage of any future operation will, to some extent, shape public perception of the national security environment.”

It can be said that it was this ‘need’ by governments, amongst other factors, which meant that conflict media representatives, such as embedded journalists for example, now face reporting on a broad range of situations – from conventional warfare to acts of extremism – which are arguably as confusing as they are complex. The very nature of their work means that they’re required to be at the forefront of unfolding events in the region, whether that means their covering of the unveiling of a new government programme, or the eruption of fresh hostilities between two opposing factions. It is this level of responsibility that makes solving, or at the very least understanding, the controversy over the use of embedded journalists in the military so important.

The first main benefit which can be taken from embedded journalists’ work is their ability to secure first-hand access of the events as they unfold. This means that the speed in which events can be reported back to a news agency or organisation is vastly improved, allowing for media outlets in journalists’ home countries to be able to regularly access numerous reports and information on a large number of events from a wide variety of sources. Journalist, Susan Stephenson, quoted in Berman (2003), concisely highlighted this benefit when she said that, it is “the sense of immediacy and humanity that made our stories very real today”. Her opinion on the matter is also supported in Getler (2003) where she states that “many news organisations now have a cadre of journalists who have some real knowledge and understanding of the military”, which of course is essential to prevent misunderstanding and miscommunication with the public that might otherwise discredit their role and thus damage their believability.

The second benefit: ‘Believability’, is vitally important in media as it forms the basis for the public’s opinion of any journalist or News organisation, therefore directly affecting shaping its readership in addition to its standing amongst its competitors. Appearing to be believable and engaging is something that embedded journalists aim to achieve in their articles and broadcasts which seek to counteract the growing levels of public distrust for official reports delivered by the military which are being more and more commonly dismissed as propaganda aimed at supporting a government’s ‘agenda’.

The number of journalists present in an area, in addition to the range of personnel within the units with whom they’re placed, forms a third ‘benefit’ of using embedded reporters because it allows for an increased number of ‘believable’ and ‘human’ angles due to embedded journalists’ ability to access multiple sources and hear different perspectives directly from the source. Alongside this ease of access to a variety of personal experiences, embedded journalists also are able to act as metaphorical ‘watchdogs’, holding the military to account through observing military activity and ensuring that legal and ethical standards are being upheld during combat.

Living amongst military personnel as a member of said unit allows almost free and open access to the journalist to cover and broadcast on a wide variety of stories from the horrifying coverage of an explosion, to the mundane coverage of the living conditions, or day-to-day lives of those they live amongst.

As said by General Buford Blout the Third, in Synovitz (2003); “The embedding process is an attempt to get reporters to tell the ‘army story’ more actively, by allowing them to share the experience and rank of soldiers in the field”, whereas Lieutenant Commander Jeff Davis recognises the value of “having independent journalists say in an unbiased way what the truth is”…… “It is something people will benefit from by having a true understanding of what is going on” (McClintock, 2003). However it can be said that the role of a journalist who is embedded in a military unit is most easily summarised by journalist, Dan Suwyn, in Bartholomew (2003a) where he simply states that “all we can do [as journalists] is to try and make a local connection with a war halfway across the world.”

Overall it could be said that, all of these benefits allow for a more improved and streamlined relationship between the government, its military, and the media representatives tasked with reporting on conflicts. The inevitable regular, close contact between military and the media could be said to potentially lead to the development of mutual trust between the two, ideally leading to the increased connections that facilitate the flow of information between the armed forces, government and members of the public and subsequently increasing military transparency – a goal touted by the majority of critics as being a big step in “the right direction.”

However, some argue that there’s not been a step at all.

Prior to joining a military unit, journalists are required to sign a contract that aims to restrict when and what they are able to report on. In addition to this, the unit’s commander is able to declare a “blackout” for security reasons, whereby the journalist is unable to report at all via satellite connection as this may be traced by the ‘enemy’ so as to secure the unit’s location. Although written and signed with good intentions, critics argue that by signing such a contract, journalists are constricted into reporting primarily from a single, narrow viewpoint; namely that of the military.

Journalist, Jack Lawrence, appears to have summarised the difficulty of being in a position of knowledge yet unable to share it when he says, “The challenge of knowing so much and being able to say only in general terms what you do know in a live or nearly live broadcast is extraordinarily difficult. I am holding in my head all the information whilst at the same time as I am centring myself and ad-libbing to a host who is asking questions that I could so easily answer and give away information that would break the ground rules” (Jensen, 2003).

Even past US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld stated that “What we are seeing is not the war in Iraq; what we’re seeing are slices of the war in Iraq” (op cit), cautioning that being so close to the action does not necessarily mean the portrayal is complete.

“We’re seeing that particular perspective that that reporter, or that commentator or that television camera, happens to be able to see at that moment, and it is not what’s taking place. What you see is taking place, to be sure, but it’s one slice, and it is the totality of that which is what this war is about” (Ibid).

The second key issue raised in embedding journalists is the media’s dependency on advertisers “looking to appeal to an audience determined by the stories and journalists chosen by the owners and investors” (Tuosto, 2008). It is arguably this issue which holds sway over all others, namely: the potential for sensationalism, the potential for media or personal bias, and the risk for the ‘human’ perspective outweighing the much-needed critical analysis of events.

I have come to the conclusion that, in a general sense at least, the benefits of embedding journalists far outweigh the issues they create. It is only when embedding becomes the primary method of reporting on conflict that it creates a skewed image of events due to the journalists’ confinement to a small segment of the battlefield with only restricted movements outside it. This is because, although it allows them to gain a deep understanding of the lives of military personnel and the locals that they are surrounded by, it restricts them into seeing enemy combatants from the purely a one-sided perspective, rarely giving the public the opportunities to see things from an opposing viewpoint outside of ‘official’ reports. It is this fact, I believe, which leads to the potential for media bias and sensationalism. As explained by The Independent’s Opinion Correspondent, Ian Burrell; “War reporting is easy to do, but difficult to do well. Wars rouse such passions that editors and senior producers in home offices seldom retain healthy journalistic scepticism” (Burrell, 2010).

It is with this in mind that has shaped my view that, although embedding journalists in military units is an important step in providing the public with a deeper understanding of the military whilst also allowing for effective reporting of localised events; it is only when they, i.e. embedded journalists, are balanced alongside a variety of other media representatives whose roles fill in the informational and perspective ‘gaps’, that an accurate and fair representation of conflicts will be possible, and scepticism regarding whether embedded journalists are purely propaganda merchants will be silenced. Until then, it will be continued to be argued that “whilst viewers might be seeing more of the war than ever before, they may actually be learning less, albeit in a more spectacular way” (Hoon, 2003a).

References:

Bartholomew, R., (2003a) “Embeds from smaller papers take different approach”. Available at: http://editorandpublisher.com/edtiorpublisher/headlines/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=186026a

Berman, A., (2003) “So far, editors pleased with embedded reporters”. Available at: http://www.editorandpublisher.p…/cpt?action=cpt&expire=&url1ID=5764107&fb=Y&partnerID=6

Burrell, I., (2010) “Embedded Journalism: a distorted view of war”. The Independent. Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/media/opinion/embedded-journalism-a-distorted-view-of-war-2141072.html

Getler, M., (2003) “Close up and vivid reporting”. Available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com

Hoon, G., (2003a) “No lense is wide enough to show the big picture”. Available at: http://www.Times_online.co.uk

Jensen, E., (2003) “Veteren reporters go to war”. Available at: http://www.latimes.com

McClintock, P., (2003) “Embedded journalists draw fire”. Available at: http://www.xtramsn.co.nz/entertainment/0,,3911-2224949,00.html

Synovitz, R., (2003) “Iraq: Pentagon starts embedding reporters with troops in an effort to tell ‘army story’”. Available at: http://www.rferl.org/nca/features/2003/03/11032003184830.asp.

Tuosto, K., (2008) “The ‘Grunt Truth’ of Embedded Journalism: The new media/military relationship”.  Stanford Journal of International Relations, Vol 10, No. 1, Fall/Winter 2008. Available at: http://www.stanford.edu/group/sjir/pdf/journalism_real_final_v2.pdf

US Department of Defence. (2003) “Public affairs guidance on embedding media during possible future operations”. Available at: http://www.defenselink.mil/news/Feb2003/d20030228pag.pdf