Posted: June 17, 2009
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Article SummaryIn May 2009, Rusty Cawley and I had a dialogue on my website Guestbook about how (and whether) to deal with the outrage of animal rights extremists. Focusing on extremist ideology rather than extremist behavior, I recommended some ways to respond to extremists that are aimed at ameliorating the outrage of the extremists' followers (the "attentives") rather than the outrage of the extremists themselves. In this follow-up analysis, Rusty distinguishes animal rights extremists from animal rights activists, and outlines the way he thinks a university research laboratory (such as the one he works for) should deal with each.

Animal rights extremists, animal rights
activists, and animal rights attentives
Rusty Cawley’s Response to Peter M. Sandman

In May 2009, Rusty Cawley and I had a dialogue on my website Guestbook about how (and whether) to deal with the outrage of animal rights extremists. I made the distinction between extremist behavior and extremist ideology. Focusing on the latter, I recommended some ways to respond to extremists that are aimed at ameliorating the outrage of the extremists’ followers (the “attentives”) rather than the outrage of the extremists themselves.

A month later, Rusty responded with this analysis, in which he distinguishes animal rights extremists from animal rights activists, and outlines the way he thinks a university research laboratory (such as the one he works for) should deal with each.

Clearly, a word like “extremist” is a hot-button word, and should be used with care. My first mistake may have been my failure to define “animal right extremist.” Here is my initial attempt.

An animal rights extremist is anyone who:

  • Believes fervently that animals should enjoy the same protections from violence and exploitation that humans expect to enjoy in a civilized society.
  • Actively avoids dialogue with or negotiation with those who may disagree with that stance.
  • Engages in what is known in the animal rights community as “direct action” to protect a group of animals from violence or exploitation, as defined by that community.
    • This direct action often includes acts of vandalism, intimidation or defamation.
    • Targets often include research facilities (both public and private) that engage in experiments upon laboratory animals.
  • Functions as part of a “cell” that engages in these acts.
  • Communicates anonymously to targets in a one-way correspondence designed to avoid dialogue and to promote intimidation or defamation.

In other words: An animal rights extremist is a domestic terrorist focused on advancing animal rights.

Again, the phrase “domestic terrorist” is a hot button. But how else do you identify folks who support a political agenda by:

  • Sending death threats to researchers?
  • Breaking into research facilities and destroying equipment?
  • Setting fire to the homes of animal researchers with the families in their homes?
  • Attacking researchers with baseball bats?1

For all practical purposes, ALF is to PETA what the IRA was to Sinn Fein: the domestic terror wing of an aggressive political agenda.

The role of outrage management may be (as you indicated) to manage the outrage of the attentives. It’s an excellent point that attentives don’t really want either the extremists or the client to win. Thus staking out the middle ground and paying attention to the seesaw make a lot of sense.

Because I’m in public relations, not in pure risk communication, I have to take it a step further. I’ve got to think in terms of: “What can my clients do that will help protect them from vandalism, intimidation or defamation?” Telling my clients to “call the cops” is not a viable option. By definition, cops respond to acts of crime. They rarely are in a position to protect against acts of crime – particularly acts of violence. Therefore to tell the client “call the cops” is to say “There’s nothing to do until the damage is done.” There has to be a better strategy than that, and I’m paid to find that strategy.

Since the extremists (as defined above) have no interest in communication or negotiation, it would appear that outrage management can play only a limited role here.

The whole point of the activist attack is to provoke a violent reaction from the target, the late community organizer Saul Alinsky said, not to reform the target. Therefore, the client should take the advice of Sun-Tzu: “Do not gobble proffered baits.”

The client should avoid providing the predictable reaction that the extremists expect. Perhaps instead, the client should take several pages out of the Alinsky playbook,2 and turn them upon the extremists:

  • “Power is not only what you have, but what your enemy thinks you have.” Clients should engage in what Sun-Tzu called “maneuver.” This is attack by misdirection, causing the enemy to react to shadows, and thus disrupting the enemy’s plans.
  • “Go outside the experience of the enemy.” Clients should go on the offensive, in terms of both security and public relations. Extremists expect the clients to wait and respond. Instead, clients should disrupt the plans of the extremists as often as possible, and should engage in the public debate over the value of ethical animal research.
  • “The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.” Extremists depend upon their anonymity to function. Clients should work actively to remove their cover and expose them to the real world. Even if this effort is minimally successful, it will cause converts to think twice, and veterans to question the potential cost of their actions.
  • “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.” Clients should systematically attack the image of the animal rights extremist as a hero, and supplant that image with a new one: “domestic terrorist.”

Now I understand that the use of “enemy” and “attack” may cause you to question the soundness of my thinking. Generally, when caught in a controversy, I urge my clients to wage peace aggressively. But it is impossible to wage peace with domestic terrorists. I see no alternative than to engage in the strategy that crisis manager Eric Denzenhall3 refers to as “dissuasion,” which he defines as “the art of making things not happen.” Or to paraphrase Gen. William T. Sherman, make it too painful for extremists and their supporters to continue to wage war against researchers. In your second example, you used dissuasion by putting the activists on the horns of a dilemma. The only “right” answer was to leave your client alone. Thus dissuasion has got to be part of any grand strategy to end attacks on researchers.

So, perhaps there are two sides to the equation for managing animal rights extremism: public relations (with an emphasis on risk communication) and private security.

I’ve spent quite a lot of time talking these ideas through with Dr. David H. McIntyre, director of Texas A&M University’s Integrative Center for Homeland Security, and former dean of faculty at the National War College, where he taught advanced strategic thinking to the future leaders of the U.S. military. Our conversations have centered on the following grand strategy:

Cleave the extremists from the activists and the attentives.

The key to this strategy is to focus attention on the extremists’ violence, not the underlying issue. The issue (whether it is animal rights or abortion rights or whatever) is irrelevant as long as violence is being advanced. We wouldn’t tolerate this behavior from a Tim McVeigh. Why tolerate it from someone just because his or her issue is animal rights? There should be no tolerance for violence, whatever the cause. There are other avenues: the political system and the court system, as well as the public opinion process. As long as these remain available to the animal right movement, there is no excuse for resorting to violence.

I’ve settled (at least for now) on the following three steps toward mitigating the effects of animal rights extremism on university-based animal researchers:

number 1

Separate the extremists from the activists.

  • Deliver these key messages:
    • “Violence is never acceptable, whatever the issue.”
    • “The activists have good points, and should be heard.”
    • “We’re willing to work with them to set the gold standard for animal research.”
number 2

Separate the attentives from the activists, and force the activists to choose sides.

  • Deliver these key messages:
    • “When you give money to PETA, you are giving money to ALF.”
    • “ALF believes in stopping animal research by any means necessary, and refuses to negotiate.”
    • “An end to animal research means an end to progress in human health.”
    • “We’re willing to work with PETA or any other activists in establishing rules that minimize the effects on animal subjects while maintaining research.”
  • Act transparently with both activists and attentives, including tours of facilities and meetings with focus groups.
  • Pull attentives inside the bell curve of public opinion on animal rights; isolate extremists (again, as defined above) at the far end of the bell curve; force activists to choose where they will stand.
  • Recognize that attentives are the sources of funding for both activists and extremists, and thus are the choke point for both.
number 3

Develop a private security infrastructure, with an emphasis on:

  • Gathering and analyzing online intelligence on the extremist community without apology. (Why shouldn’t a university’s security department keep tabs on domestic terrorism that threatens its researchers?)
  • Preempting anticipated attacks on researchers whenever possible.
  • Providing an immediate security response to threats or attacks on researchers, whether on- or off-campus.

Obviously, I’m not qualified to develop a full-blown private security strategy, but it seems to me that these are the pillars.


1.  For documentation, I suggest:

  • “Protecting Homo Sapiens,” by Matthew Harwood, Security Management, April 2009 (pp. 71–79).
  • The Animal Research War, by P. Michael Conn and James V. Parker (Palgrave MacMillan Publishers, 2008).

2.  Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals, by Saul D. Alinsky (Vintage Books Edition, 1972), pp. 126–129.

3.  Damage Control: Why Everything You Know about Crisis Management is Wrong, by Eric Denzenhall and John Weber (Portfolio Publishers, 2007), pp. 111–124.

Copyright © 2009 by Rusty Cawley

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